Review: Gypsy, Gypsy, Rumer Godden

Okay, I’m going to ruin the whole plot of this book for your sake to save you from reading it yourself and possibly judging Rumer Godden based on this book which you should not, she is actually wonderful. She just is not wonderful here.

Gypsy Gypsy is about this girl called Henrietta who lives with her mean aunt Barbe. Yes, the lady’s name is Barbe, and she’s very sarcastic to everybody. It is a trifle on the nose, and I’d like to make some excuse for Rumer Godden like she was only 33 when this book was published, but you know what, Alexander had conquered the whole Mediterranean by the time he was 33, so no pass for Rumer Godden! Henrietta has a boyfriend but inexplicably refuses to marry him because she — I don’t know why, this is never explained. I guess she isn’t yet ready to leave her life of weird, awkward servitude to her amoral aunt Barbe. Aunt Barbe owns a fancy mansion and all the peasant folk hate her. You keep thinking they’re going to rebel against her and come raid the mansion Beauty and the Beast style, but they never do and this plot point doesn’t really come to anything.

Aunt Barbe is a sour old cow, and one day over dinner she tells Henrietta how in the olden days they thought that having sex with a virgin would cure you of diseases, and Barbe has the brilliant idea that maybe you could apply this same basic principle to a diseased soul. She figures if she can corrupt a purely innocent soul, she’ll be clean again, instead of being a miserable bitch that everyone hates. So she starts being really nice to this gypsy family that she lets move onto her land, and everyone’s like, “Hey, no, don’t invite gypsies here, they’re bad news!” Aunt Barbe gives the gypsy kids candy and plays stupid games with them, but because she’s doing this from a malicious motive, it ends up ruining their lives. Henrietta keeps fluttering about going “They were happy before! Stop giving them candy!” but nobody listens to Henrietta because she’s a cipher of fluttery nothing. Then Aunt Barbe shames the gypsy father about his poverty, and he stabs Aunt Barbe’s old Nanny in the neck (yeah, she still has a Nanny. I know, right?), but they all work really hard to get him off the murder charge. Nobody ever hesitates about helping a guy who stabbed an old lady in the neck get off a murder charge. He gets convicted of a lesser charge, and everyone’s unhappy about everything. The end.

I will start by saying, because I love Rumer Godden and I want you to think well of her, that she wrote a book called The Diddakoi later in her life, about a little gypsy orphan girl. The Diddakoi is pretty merciless to the characters who are prejudiced against gypsies. So I know that Rumer Godden does not really think that gypsies are a) pure innocent souls in the wilderness of the world or b) dirty scum of the earth thieves.

Next I will say that when Rumer Godden got the idea for a book about a woman who tries the spiritual version of deflowering a virgin to get rid of disease, Oscar Wilde stood on the edge of heaven and screamed and lamented for two straight years because he had not thought of it first. This is such an Oscar Wilde idea in a Rumer Godden book, and that — though I love them both dearly — is not a recipe for success. I mean Aunt Barbe is basically a less lazy, female Sir Henry Wotton. Oscar Wilde would have done this book much better than Rumer Godden, but he didn’t have the chance because he died at forty-six and never was able to have this idea and write it into a book that would have been much better that Rumer Godden’s rotten book.

And finally, I will say what I was thinking this whole book long, which is, What the hell, Rumer Godden?

Never read Gypsy Gypsy. It’s awful, and it doesn’t even have the compensatory positive of being written in that excellent, distinctive style that Rumer Godden has. Traces of her style are visible, but they’re hidden behind a black cloud of smoggy awfulness.

Giving up

Okay, I can’t do it, I’ve read too many books and not reviewed them and then I can’t remember anything about them. So whatever. I’m doing little bitty ones here. I’m declaring bloggy bankruptcy and giving myself a clean slate. Have to. Here are a series of cranky little reviewlets.

Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi

Liked it a lot! I went to see Helen Oyeyemi talk at McNally Jackson, and she said that writing Mr. Fox was just fun, that she was just enjoying every minute of writing it. It shows when you’re reading the book. Mr. Fox plays with ideas of inspiration and violence against women and writing and imagination and Bluebeard stories. It’s a little weird and confusing but a lot funny and clever. Helen Oyeyemi remains one of my favorite young writers. As before I can’t wait to see what she does next. White Is for Witching remains my favorite of her four books because it involves a haunted house and I love a haunted house.

An Episode of Sparrows, Rumer Godden

Little street urchins try to make a garden in a Blitz-wrecked London. My mother loves this book, and I liked it, certainly, but it was awfully sad. The ending is hopeful, but not quite hopeful enough to make up for how extraordinarily sad it was in the meantime. Maybe upon successive rereadings I will love it better.

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

My coworker said that Lorrie Moore writes the best women characters he’s ever encountered. Better than Alice Walker (he said). Y’all know it’s never a good idea to read a new book in a combative mood. I read A Gate at the Stairs with skeptical eyes but I have to say? I didn’t think the women characters were that great. They didn’t feel real at all, and neither did the men, and the whole thing just, eh, I didn’t like it. I thought it was going to focus more on the experience of being in college, so there was also that expectations gap that’s an enjoyment-killer.

Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar

Argh. I loved the idea of this book. There are 55 basic chapters and 99 “expendable” chapters. The author says you can read the 55 chapters in order and dispense with the 99, or you can read in an order he suggests that hopscotches between the regular chapters and the expendable ones. The idea is that you’ll have quite a different book if you read straight through, compared to if you jump around. Per usual, experimental fiction loses me by not giving a crap about plot. I couldn’t stop thinking about how cool it would be if a plot-minded author had done this same thing. If Barbara Vine had done it, say. If the expendable chapters had cast a new light on the events of the regular chapters. That would have been amazing. But that wasn’t what happened. I just got fed up and started wanting to punch the characters, and I couldn’t stop reading because I borrowed the book from a coworker (the one who thinks Lorrie Moore is better than Alice Walker OBVIOUS NONSENSE) and I wanted to be able to say something nice about it when I returned it because I hate it when someone asks to borrow a book from me and I lend them the book in spite of strong inclinations against lending my books and then they give it back without reading it. So I staggered on becoming more and more resentful, and by the second half of the book — which actually was significantly better and more interesting! — I was too fed up to enjoy the good things about the book.

And I hate reading books in translation. Sorry. I just do.

The end! Clean slate! Clean slate going into the New Year. I am going to be awesome at writing posts this year. YOU WILL SEE.

Review: The Peacock Spring, Rumer Godden

As I write this review, I am in a state of near-perfect happiness. I will tell you why. I am sitting in an Oscar Wilde-themed cafe in the West Village, drinking coffee from a teacup and eating a scone with clotted cream and raspberry jam. There is a cafe in the West Village called Bosie (I know, right? What a weird thing to name a cafe!), and it has in the back a framed picture of Oscar Wilde (to recapitulate, I am not making this up), and it has these really lovely scones with jam. I am well aware that this sounds like I am telling you about a very pleasant dream I had, but that is not the situation. It is a real thing.

Anyway, after a week that caused me more anxiety and less joy than its events really warranted, it was nice to sit in this nice new little cafe, sipping coffee, nibbling a scone, and writing about Rumer Godden.

Rumer Godden — let me begin by saying — should be more famous than she is. I admit that her books for adults can be hit or miss, but of her books for children, there is barely a loser amongst them. She has a distinctive, oddly lovely way of writing; nobody writes the way Rumer Godden does. Even when she is writing a book that sounds like the most saccharine thing ever — like a family of dolls that long for a doll house — she never comes close to being saccharine. She is piquant instead. Do not ask me how she accomplishes this, because I don’t know.

The Peacock Spring is all about two girls, half-sisters, who come to live with their father in India. Twelve-year-old Halcyon delighted makes friend after friend and falls in love with a deposed rajah, but bookish fifteen-year-old Una resents being taken away from her studies in England. She dislikes her governess, who is clearly having an affair with her father, and fears she won’t be able to go to university as she dreamed. Her only happiness comes from learning advanced math in secret from the under-gardener, an Indian poet called Ravi.

If you want a first Rumer Godden experience, don’t go with this. I liked it in sort of the same way I liked Promises of Love (but I liked that better than this): more because of its total RumerGoddeniness than for it on its own merits. Except with Promises of Love it was the MaryRenaultiness. The governess, Alix, is a very Rumer Godden kind of character — pitiable and selfish and not very nice — without doing that excellent Rumer Godden character thing of turning interesting and sympathetic when you don’t expect it. And there wasn’t enough of my favorite character, a friend of Ravi’s called Hem, who has integrity. Another of Rumer Godden’s many, many gifts as a writer is to write characters who have integrity and are not boring, all at the same time.

In brief: Rumer Godden is the best. But The Peacock Spring won’t necessarily prove it to you. But I promise it’s true. Read A Candle for St. Jude instead or, if it is Christmas, THe Story of Holly and Ivy. The former is wonderful (and Eva is going to like it! She’s going to like it! She is! You are, Eva!), and the latter is among the most heartwarmingly wonderful Christmas stories ever invented.

Who else has read The Peacock Spring? Anyone? Why do people not love Rumer Godden enough? THAT IS WHAT I WANT TO KNOW. I don’t mind about this book particularly, because it’s only fine and not particularly awesome, but some of her books are so great, and nobody has read those either!

The Dancers of Sycamore Street, Julie L’Enfant

Look, I’m as fond of my home state as the next person – probably more than many – and this book is set in Louisiana.  And although part of me was mad because I read a review that called Thursday’s Children “goopy treacle” and compared it unfavorably with The Dancers of Sycamore Street, and that part of me wanted The Dancers of Sycamore Street to be rubbish, I was mostly hoping that I was about to read an undiscovered gem, and not only would I enjoy it hugely, but I would also feel pleased and proud that it was set in my home state.  This is the way I felt about The Mercy of Thin Air, which was fantastic and featured Louie’s, where I have spent many a happy morning eating cheesy hashbrowns.  But not about The Dancers of Sycamore Street.

This book is about a girl called Meredith, who attends a ballet school in the fictional town of Middleton, Louisiana, in 1955.  One day a famous choreographer comes to town and decides he’s going to choreograph a ballet using the Middleton dancers.  Hijinks ensue.

Except that?  They really don’t.  For a book that necessitated the use of the phrase Hijinks ensue, it had the least hijinksy hijinks I’ve ever seen.  Several things happen: (spoilers) the choreographer has a past relationship with Meredith’s teacher but seems to be engaged in romancing the rich lady who is financing the whole thing; Meredith’s teacher’s daughter gets preggo at the end; the one male dancer desperately yearns to be taken to New York to succeed as a dancer there.  But none of it is interesting.  The whole book is just bland, bland, bland, with a side of bland.  Meredith just watches what other people do, and never does anything herself – a literary device that I can imagine working, but it doesn’t work in this case, at all.  The book didn’t have any character, itself, and I didn’t care about any of the characters.  They could all have died in a hurricane at the end and I wouldn’t have cared.

On the other hand, I made my first balloon monkey today.  Monkey.  It’s pretty easy, I don’t know why I never learned how when I used to do them for parties.  Plus, I learned a totally excellent pirate sword.  Arrrrr.