The Valentine House by Emma Henderson

The Valentine House surprised me. Having read Emma Henderson’s first novel, Grace Williams Says It Loud, in 2011, I had expected this new one, her second, to be something similar. Instead, what I found was something completely different. Grace Williams was a moving, thought-provoking story of a young girl in a 1950s mental institution; The Valentine House is probably best described as a family saga set in the French Alps.

The house referred to in the title is Arete, a large chalet in the mountains overlooking the village of Hext. It was built by a British mountaineer, Sir Anthony Valentine, in the 19th century and is used as a summer home by successive generations of his family. Our story begins in 1914 when Mathilde, a teenage girl from a farm in the valley, goes to work for the Valentines. Mathilde is an ‘Ugly’, the term given to the unattractive young women who make up Arete’s workforce, specially chosen by Sir Anthony’s wife, Lady C, as being less likely to catch her husband’s eye. Spending her summers at the house, Mathilde gets to know the Valentine family, particularly Daisy, a girl the same age as herself who becomes gradually wilder and more unstable as the years go by.

Decades later, in the summer of 1976, Sir Anthony’s great-great-grandson George is visiting Arete with several of his cousins. Even though Sir Anthony is long gone, his legacy lives on in the Alpine Club which he created to entertain the younger members of the family, and George and his cousins continue to carry out Club activities such as the outdoor physical challenges known as ‘Paideia’. Mathilde is still there too, an elderly woman now, but as much a part of Arete life as she has ever been.

The Valentine House is a dual time period novel: a chapter set in 1976 and written from George’s perspective is followed by one narrated by Mathilde and set earlier in the century. Eventually the two begin to converge and secrets which have been kept hidden from the reader (and from some of the characters) start to be revealed. What is the truth behind the disappearance of Margaret, Sir Anthony’s daughter, whose visits to Arete came to an abrupt stop many years ago? Mathilde is sure that if she could only find out what happened to Margaret everything else that has puzzled her about the Valentines would begin to make sense. Although some of the plot twists and revelations could probably be predicted, I didn’t even try to guess – I just relaxed and let the story take me in whichever direction it wanted to go, which meant I was kept in suspense until the various Valentine mysteries started to unfold.

I did struggle at times to keep track of all the characters and how they were related to each other. This is probably not surprising, as there are five generations of the family featured in the novel; drawing a simple family tree helped to solve the problem, although I wish I’d had the sense to do it at the beginning of the book instead of when I was already halfway through!

I think what I loved most about The Valentine House was the setting; I haven’t been to the area of France described in the book – the Haute-Savoie – but I would like to as Emma Henderson makes it sound beautiful. And this is a good place for me to mention that Sir Anthony himself has a unique way of describing the Alpine mountains and valleys, which you’ll discover in the opening paragraph of the novel. If you find that the language he uses makes you blush, don’t worry – this does not reflect the style of writing throughout the rest of the book!

Although I found both threads of the story very enjoyable, it usually seems to be inevitable with dual timeline novels that readers will have a preference for one storyline over the other and in my case it was the one narrated by Mathilde. And it was Mathilde whose story lingered on in my mind for days after finishing the book.

Now I’m wondering what Emma Henderson’s third book will be about. I hope there’s going to be one!

Howards End by E.M. Forster

howards-endThis is only the second book I’ve read by E.M. Forster – the first one being A Room with a View. With plenty of his books left to choose from, I decided that the next one I read would be Howards End, which was recommended to me by almost everyone who commented on my review of A Room with a View back in 2013!

Howards End is the story of two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, and their relationship with the Wilcox family. At the beginning of the novel, Helen – the younger and more impulsive of the two – accepts an invitation to visit Howards End, the Wilcox country home, where she becomes romantically involved with the younger son, Paul Wilcox. Although their romance is quickly broken off, the two families stay in touch and the elder Schlegel sister, the more practical and sensible Margaret, becomes good friends with Paul’s mother, Ruth.

Ruth Wilcox longs to show Margaret Howards End, feeling that her new friend will appreciate the house more than her own children do. Margaret never gets a chance to visit while Mrs Wilcox is alive, but when she dies, early in the novel, she tries to bequeath Howards End to Margaret. However, the rest of the Wilcox family choose not to inform Margaret and burn the note which describes Ruth’s dying wish, leaving Margaret none the wiser. As time goes by, Margaret gets to know Ruth’s widowed husband, Henry, and a friendship forms which soon develops into something more. Could Margaret end up living at Howards End one day after all?

Meanwhile, Helen has also made a new friend: Leonard Bast, a young insurance clerk who is married to an older woman, Jacky. Acting on advice from Henry Wilcox, the Schlegels warn Leonard that the company he works for is in trouble and that he should look for another job. Leonard follows this advice, but when things go wrong and he ends up with nothing, Helen blames Henry for his misfortunes.  Will she ever be able to forgive him?

Published in 1910, Howards End explores the relationships between these three families, each occupying a different position in the British class system. The Wilcoxes are wealthy, materialistic capitalists who have made their money from the Imperial and West African Rubber Company. The Schlegels, who are half German, are cultured, intellectual and idealistic, and apparently based on the real-life Bloomsbury Group. Finally, the lower-middle class Leonard Bast has found himself impoverished and stuggling to get by, but is trying to improve his lot in life by exposing himself to music and literature.

Class is obviously an important theme in this novel, then, but there are others too, such as gender roles and feminism. With such a variety of characters, we get a variety of views ranging from Henry Wilcox saying that “the uneducated classes are so stupid”, Mrs Wilcox’s opinion that “it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men”, and Margaret thinking to herself, “Ladies sheltering behind men, men sheltering behind servants – the whole system’s wrong.” It’s interesting to think that within a few years of this book being published, the outbreak of war in Europe and also the progress of the women’s suffrage movement would bring social change to Britain and the world Forster is describing would no longer exist.

Howards End is a beautifully written novel and a fascinating and thought-provoking one. However, I don’t think I can say that I loved it, partly because I found so many of the characters difficult to like and care about.  Although Forster himself writes about each character with warmth and empathy, I didn’t feel that I was forming a very strong connection with any of them.  I preferred A Room with a View, but I’m probably in the minority with that as so many people have told me that this one is their favourite by Forster. I’m still looking forward to reading more of his novels, though, and I think A Passage to India will be next.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter There really is a place called Winter; it’s in Saskatchewan, Canada, and at the time when Patrick Gale’s novel is set, it’s a small, newly-established settlement just off the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Winter is home to the fictional Harry Cane, a character based on the author’s own great-grandfather, but how did such a quiet, gentle and seemingly conventional Englishman end up in so harsh and remote a place? A Place Called Winter is Harry’s story, explaining exactly what the circumstances were which brought him to Canada, and what happened to him after he arrived there.

At the beginning of the novel, Harry is a shy, stammering young man living in Edwardian London. Doing what is expected of him, he gets married, and although he has no real love or passion for his wife, it’s not an unhappy marriage and they have a child together. Things start to go wrong for Harry when he falls in love with a man and is forced to leave the country to escape the resulting scandal. Given the opportunity to farm some land in Canada, Harry begins to build a new life for himself alone in a place called Winter.

Harry’s experiences in Canada are a mixture of good and bad. The challenging environment in which he finds himself requires skills he doesn’t possess and must learn quickly if he is to survive in the wilderness. With the help of some new friends, Harry starts to grow in strength and knowledge, but not everyone he meets is quite so pleasant and the behaviour of the villainous Troels Munck poses an obstacle which must be overcome before he has a chance of finding true happiness.

I found this a very moving and poignant novel, as well as a beautifully written one. I couldn’t help comparing it to Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer which I had read just a few weeks earlier. The two books have some similar themes, most notably a man trying to come to terms with his sexuality within the confines of early 20th century society, but I thought this novel had a warmth which the other lacked; Gale really engaged my emotions and made me care about his characters in a way that Galgut didn’t.

A Place Called Winter is my first book read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist and I hope the others on the list will be as good as this one. I haven’t read any of Patrick Gale’s other novels and I understand that he doesn’t usually write historical fiction, but I was very impressed with his writing and would be interested in trying more of his work.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Arctic Summer As someone who has only read one novel by E.M. Forster – A Room with a View – I wasn’t sure whether reading Arctic Summer would be a good idea. It’s a fictional biography of Forster, concentrating on the period during which he was working on his novel A Passage to India, so I thought it might be more sensible to wait until I had read that book first. Arctic Summer is on the list of books I need to read for my Walter Scott Prize Project, though, so when I saw it in the library I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking it home.

I should start by saying that as well as not having read much of Forster’s work, I also – before reading this novel – knew almost nothing about the man himself. The first thing I discovered was that Galgut refers to his main character not as Forster or Edward but as Morgan, which was his middle name. Forster went by this name to distinguish himself from his father, another Edward (and apparently he was originally supposed to be called Henry anyway – there was some confusion over names at the baptism).

We first meet Forster in 1912 as he sets sail on his first trip to India at the age of thirty-three. He is planning to visit his friend Syed Ross Masood, whom he had tutored in Latin several years earlier while Masood was a student in England. Forster is becoming increasingly aware that what he feels for Masood is not just friendship but also love. However, he is not entirely comfortable with his feelings yet and is plagued by doubts and frustrations; this was a time when homosexuality was neither legal nor seen as socially acceptable and we are reminded that fewer than twenty years have passed since Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’.

Later, during World War I, Forster travels to Egypt to work for the Red Cross, and here he falls in love again, this time with Mohammed el-Adl. His love for Masood and Mohammed forms the main focus of Arctic Summer – and this, to me, was slightly disappointing. Obviously his relationships with these two men (and others) were very important to Forster and had an influence on his writing, but I would have preferred to read a more balanced novel that also explored other aspects of his life, rather than just page after page describing his sexual experiences and desires.

I did enjoy reading about Egypt and India (the visit to the Barabar Caves was particularly memorable) and I was also pleased to see brief appearances from other writers of the period such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The writing was of a high quality too and Galgut tells Forster’s story with sensitivity and understanding. Too much of the book bored me, though, and it failed to move me as much as I would have liked and expected. I had difficulty relating the story of Morgan’s love affairs to what little I know of Forster’s writing and I think I should definitely have waited to read this until I’d at least read A Passage to India and possibly Maurice as well.

This was one of the few disappointments I’ve had during my reading from the Walter Scott Prize shortlists, but don’t let me put you off. Looking at other reviews it seems that a lot of people have read it and loved it. As I’ve mentioned, my own lack of familiarity with Forster’s life and work could have been part of my problem. If nothing else, reading Arctic Summer has made me want to read more of E.M. Forster’s novels sooner rather than later.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some Luck This is the first volume of a trilogy following the lives of the Langdon family across a period of a century. Beginning in 1920 and ending in 2020 (although Some Luck only takes us up to 1953), we will get to know several generations of the family over the course of the three novels, watching as the children grow up, get married and have children of their own, sharing their hopes and dreams, and accompanying them through some of the events which shaped the last one hundred years of American history.

At the heart of the story are Walter and Rosanna Langdon, a young married couple who, as the novel opens, are settling into life on the farm they have recently bought in Iowa. Rosanna has just given birth to their first child, Frank, and in the first few chapters, not only do we see things through the eyes of the two adults, but also through the baby’s, to whom everything in the world is new and strange. As the years go by, four more sons and daughters follow: quiet, gentle, animal-loving Joey; the sweet and angelic Lillian; Henry, who loves reading; and Claire, the youngest and her father’s favourite. Frank himself is handsome, clever and adventurous – and the contrast between his personality and Joey’s adds an interesting angle to the dynamics of the Langdon family.

The novel is carefully structured so that each chapter is devoted to one year and this keeps the story moving forward at a steady pace. However, it also gives the book an episodic feel; each time a new chapter begins and we find that we’ve jumped straight into the following year, there’s a sense that there are some gaps in the story and that things may have changed without our knowledge in a way that wouldn’t happen with a more fluent narrative. Also, as is true in all of our lives, some years are more eventful than others, which means that some chapters are more interesting than others.

Really, though, this is not a book you would choose to pick up if you were looking for a thrilling, action-packed read. Some Luck is a quiet, low-key story about ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Much of the novel is concerned with farming and all it involves: planting and harvesting crops, shearing sheep, trying to cope with summer droughts and winter snowdrifts. It reminded me in this respect of other farm-based novels I’ve read – Willa Cather’s My Antonia and, of course, Little House on the Prairie.

There are some dramas in the lives of the Langdons, but they are relatively small ones – the sort of things that could happen to any of us. Historical events are experienced mainly as the effects filter through to their remote Iowa farm – advances in farming methods, such as the replacement of horses with tractors, cause a lot of excitement and controversy – but occasionally a family member decides to leave the farm and see more of the world. Frank enlists in the army during the Second World War and is sent to North Africa, Rosanna’s sister Eloise moves to Chicago and marries a communist, and Lillian…well, I won’t say too much about what Lillian does except that it’s the one thing I found hard to believe.

Some Luck is the first book I have read by Jane Smiley. I’m aware that A Thousand Acres was her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and might have been a better choice for me to start with, but I did still enjoy this one and am planning to continue with the trilogy soon. I have the next two books – Early Warning and Golden Age – ready to read.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier I seem to have been under a bit of a misconception with this book; based on the title and the fact that it was published in 1915 I thought it would be a book about war. It isn’t, of course. I expect everyone else already knows that and I’ve just made myself sound stupid, but it’s really not a book I’ve ever considered reading or paid any attention to until recently. That’s my excuse! What is The Good Soldier actually about, then? Well, it’s a tale of marriage and adultery, of love and betrayal, and it reminded me of something F. Scott Fitzgerald might write (although Fitzgerald’s books would come several years later).

The Good Soldier is a deceptively simple story of two seemingly respectable couples who meet and get to know each other at a spa town in Germany in 1904. John Dowell, our narrator, is an American who has come to Bad Nauheim with his wife, Florence, whom he tells us has a weak heart. The other couple – Edward Ashburnham, another heart patient, and his wife Leonora – are British. Seen through John Dowell’s eyes, the story of these four people and the relationships between them slowly unfolds and we gradually discover that there is more to each of them than meets the eye.

I don’t think I really need to say much more about the plot – and to do so would run the risk of spoiling the book for future readers. This is a story built around lies, deceptions and secrets, things which are only revealed when John Dowell decides to reveal them. It’s an interesting structure, consisting of a series of memories and flashbacks told in non-chronological order, moving backwards and forwards in time. Interesting, but not very easy to follow, at least on a first read! This is the sort of book you would really need to read more than once to be able to fully appreciate it, but I don’t think I’ll be reading it again – at least not in the near future – because, although I did like the book, I didn’t like it enough for a re-read.

It’s a clever and intriguing novel, though, with a narrator who is certainly not a reliable one. We can never be sure how much of what Dowell says is true, as he often makes a statement or describes a sequence of events only to contradict himself later in the book. I was constantly having to change my mind about the characters and reassess what I thought I knew about them. The question is whether Dowell is deliberately trying to mislead us or whether he himself is deluded or confused. Even the opening line is curious: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard”. Why does he say it’s a story he’s ‘heard’ when he is one of the main participants in the story? This is a book that left me with many more questions than answers!

Have you read anything by Ford Madox Ford? I think I would like to try Parade’s End at some point.

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner Stoner was published in 1965 and is considered to be an American classic but I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of it until quite recently when it started to appear on some of the blogs I follow. It didn’t really sound like the sort of book I would usually choose to read, but when I saw a copy in the library I thought I would try it. I liked it much more than I’d expected to; it’s a quiet, reflective book about a university professor whose life is marked by disappointments and unfulfilled potential, but it’s beautifully written and surprisingly gripping at times.

William Stoner is the son of a poor farmer from Missouri. Sent to the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture, William discovers that his true passion is for literature and changes his degree course without telling his parents. After graduating, Stoner decides not to return to the family farm and stays on at the university to teach English Literature where he remains for the next forty years. During those forty years he marries, but the marriage is not a happy one, has a daughter whose life also turns out to be quite miserable, and faces problems at work with students and colleagues. When he retires in 1956 and dies soon afterwards, most of those who knew him quickly forget he ever existed.

This is certainly not an exciting, action-packed novel, but that was obvious from the very first page which sums up Stoner’s whole life in one paragraph (I haven’t spoiled anything above by telling you when he dies) and then continues with:

“An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

The story of Stoner’s life is a mediocre and uneventful one and yet somehow, despite that, it’s fascinating to read. It’s proof of the quality of John Williams’ writing that he could make me feel so interested in the boring life of a man I didn’t even always particularly like. Probably the most dramatic part of the novel, if you can describe any of it as dramatic, is when Stoner tries to fail an incompetent student and finds himself opposed by the student’s tutor, who happens to be the head of the English department. I was completely engrossed by this section of the book, where Stoner tries to do what he believes is right despite the attempts of the other professor to make things as difficult as possible for him.

The character I was most intrigued by was Edith, Stoner’s wife. Her behaviour is very difficult to understand and I’m not sure what conclusions we are supposed to make about her character. She seems to be suffering from a form of mental illness which is never specified and while it is hinted that she may have been abused by her father, this is never explained in any detail either. She was a mystery to me from beginning to end and I never felt that I (or even Stoner) ever really got to know her at all, which was the one thing that disappointed me about this book.

I know I’ve probably given the impression that Stoner is a very sad and bleak story, but it’s actually not quite as depressing as it sounds and I do recommend reading it, especially if you enjoy novels with an academic setting. Now I’m curious about John Williams’ other books – if you’ve read any of them please let me know what they’re like.