Tag Archives: Elizabeth Jenkins

This Year in Reading 2013

I’m probably not the only book blogger who ends up reading many more books than she actually blogs about, at least I hope I’m not. Most often it’s because I don’t always anything to say that I think the Internet wants to read after I finish a book. Partly because of that, and partly because I thought it would be fun, I thought I might wrap up this year in reading in the perennial tradition of the internet and the end of the year: with a best-of list.

Best Discoveries:

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

I am always looking for authors whose writing style echoes Mary Stewart, and this year, I found someone who actually comes really close! Susanna Kearsley writes delightful books: history, mystery, and romance combine with light paranormal elements to make for really enjoyable reading. I started with The Shadowy Horses (my favorite so far), and I still daydream about Eyemouth, Scotland. If light paranormal elements (clairvoyance, etc.) aren’t your cup of tea, you might try Every Secret Thing, which was published under a pseudonym (Emma Cole) – every bit as good as her other books, but without the fantastical elements that may not be to everyone’s taste.

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

I’ve yet to outgrow my liking for books where the right girl meets the right guy and then after going through a few requisite troubles and misunderstandings, they’re well on their way to the proverbial happy-ever-after. There are times when, frankly, nothing else will do but that sort of story, but it’s harder than you might think to find a story like that that isn’t plagued by shoddy writing or besmirched by either the trappings of the romance novel (“bodice ripping”) or extensive bad language, or both. Which is why, when I discovered Hester Browne’s books this year, I was overjoyed. I started with The Runaway Princess, but Swept Off Her Feet is my favorite so far.

Best Reads of the Year:

jane_prudence

via Goodreads

Jane and Prudence, by Barbara Pym. Oh, how I love Barbara Pym! I’m not sure anyone does social satire better than she does. Who else delivers us such gems like this one, about an awkward social visit: “She had been feeling that things were pretty desperate if one found oneself talking about and almost quoting Matthew Arnold to comparative strangers, though anything was better than having to pretend you had winter and summer curtains when you had just curtains.” Jane and Prudence is another example of Barbara Pym at her best. I loved it fiercely.

The Tortoise and the Hare, by Elizabeth Jenkins. I wrote about this book months ago, but I’m still thinking about it, and it was truly some of the finest writing and characterization I’ve read all year. Highly recommended, in spite of its bleakness.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. I’ve also already written about this one, and recently, but…have you read it yet? You should really read it.

Best Surprise: Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. This was my best – and biggest – surprise read of the year, because it wasn’t a book I thought I’d enjoy as much as I did, and I certainly didn’t expect to connect with or care about the characters as much as I did.

Greatest Reading Feat: Middlemarch. Enough said.

Best generally bookish thing(s): Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing tops the list, followed closely by Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Henry V in the BBC’s Hollow Crown miniseries. If you didn’t see it when it aired on PBS in the US, well, stream it on Amazon as instantly as possible. Both of these were too good to miss.

So tell me: what tops your list of best books and/or best general bookishness for 2013?

The Tortoise and the Hare

cover illustration by Florence Broadhurst, image via Goodreads

cover illustration by Florence Broadhurst, image via Goodreads

I’d just been through a spell of reading a bunch of books in a row that were all the same, with a few exceptions here and there, but finding myself without anything to say. I wanted to read something that was different from what I had been reading, something that would challenge me, other than Middlemarch (progress since last Middlemarch mention being more or less exactly equal to zero). So I turned to a book that I’ve had for a while which I was a little afraid to read, because when I first picked it up and read the first chapter, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that the book was going to be sad, and set it aside.

I wasn’t wrong. Elizabeth Jenkins’s The Tortoise and the Hare is one of the saddest beautiful books I’ve ever read.

Set in the early 1950s, The Tortoise and the Hare is the story of an unhappy marriage – the story of its slow but (to my mind) certain disintegration.

Evelyn Gresham is a successful barrister working in London, who at each weekend comes out to the country to his young, beautiful wife, Imogen, and their son. Imogen is some years younger than Evelyn, and her whole married life has been consumed with ensuring her husband’s happiness – or if not his happiness, at least the absence of disruption in his limited leisure time.

We soon see that Evelyn seems not to appreciate Imogen, or any of her efforts on his behalf. Their son, also, does not respect Imogen, and Evelyn, who never respected his own mother, instead of standing up for Imogen, rather undermines her with their son.

The Greshams’ nearest neighbor is Blanche Silcox, a sturdy, tweed-wearing, country woman who fishes, and rides, and shoots, and drives a car. Blanche is someone of whom it is said that “the Chinese do not make many ugly carpets, but one of their very few had been unerringly chosen” by her. No one could be more different than Imogen, who is excessively feminine, and beautiful, and whose appreciation of beauty is intense.

As Imogen learns of Evelyn’s spending increasing amounts of time at Blanche’s home and in Blanche’s company, our sense of fear and dread grows with hers. At one point, when Imogen has been questioning the amount of time he spends with Blanche, Evelyn responds with a typical absence of grace:

“Imogen,” he said with forced patience, “you have plenty of occupations of your own, and you don’t care to do the things that give a great deal of pleasure to me when I have time to do them. You don’t want to fish or shoot and you can’t drive my car, which would be a help to me sometimes. Am I to understand that you object to my having the companionship of another woman who can do these things?”

One reviewer said on Goodreads, “This is domestic fiction of the early 20th century at its best, but only for the most steely hearted.” I don’t consider myself entirely steely-hearted, and although I essentially read the book over the course of three evenings, sometimes fortified with Skittles, I had to take short breaks and read something else in between those evenings.

Really it is a beautifully-written story. For me, it wasn’t beautiful writing in the sense that single sentences strike you almost with the force of a prose poem, something you’d want to write down and read over and over again, savoring the texture and the sound and the feeling of the words in your mind and maybe even saying them aloud. But the writing was beautiful: beautiful in its economy, its intelligence, and its sharpening to an almost painful clarity the emotions of a scene and the essence of each character.

I finished the book yesterday evening, and I can’t stop thinking about the characters, or the many questions the story left with me that I’m eager to discuss with someone. Questions that might be considered spoilers, if unlike me, you don’t view the ending of this story as a foregone conclusion, questions like:

  • Who was the tortoise and who was the hare? I think a case could be made for Imogen, for Blanche, and even for Cecil. (My apologies for dropping a character-name otherwise unmentioned, but Cecil was my favorite person in this story and I may have to do a whole other separate post about how she could be the tortoise.)
  • Did Evelyn ever really love Imogen? Does he love Blanche? Does he maybe love no one but himself?
  • Knowing of Ms. Jenkins’s dislike of Virginia Woolf (and perhaps all of the Bloomsbury Group), did anyone else read the Leepers and Zenobia as possibly a critique of that set?

But most of all, what I would like to know is, was the ending happy? I can’t help being reminded of something Barbara Pym wrote in one of my favorite novels, about a book that was “well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life.”

If you’ve read the book, I hope you’ll weigh in with some thoughts! For my part, I would like to think the ending was on the happy side of indefinite, that most of all, there was hope for Imogen to achieve the happiness she tried to create for others.