Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Hospital Reading: Antonia Fraser & Maggie O'Farrell

The relative is a tough old bird, a devout Catholic, and a card sharp, and she is OUT OF THE HOSPITAL. 


Life is getting back to normal.   

I've logged so many hours in the hospital with The Young and the Restless, The Talk,  and Rachael Ray that you'll be surprised I missed reading. Cane got shot on the steps of the church after his father's wedding; Myrlie Evers, widow of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, was interviewed on The Talk (actually a very good segment); and Rachael's sister gave a mommy a makeover.  I surreptitiously read a few short contemporary e-books (the Nook really does come in handy when you're traveling).  I'm STILL working on Sacred Hunger (it's pictured on the bottom of the stack above).

Short books I've been reading:

1.  I desultorily read Antonia Fraser's Must You Go?  My Life with Harold Pinter, but I still have quite a bit to go.  The biographer Antonia Fraser, author of Mary Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette, Oliver Cromwell, Warrior Queens, and the Jemima Shore mysteries, was married to Harold Pinter.  Her stunning memoir, Must You Go?, interweaves narrative with diary entries dating back to 1975 when she met Pinter.  They met at a party, broke up their marriages, religious issues impeded Pinter's divorce, but he and Antonia lived together, blended families at holidays, and eventually married and lived a rich life together.  Antonia wrote her biographies, urged on by Harold when she lagged behind on a project, and Harold wrote and directed plays.  Did you know this Beckett-influenced playwright  wrote the screenplay for The French Lieutenant's Woman (I'm all for pop culture)?  That Antonia voted for Margaret Thatcher to see a woman as prime minister, though she returned to her liberal voting next election?  Lots of fascinating anecdotes:  friends included Olivia Manning, Alan Bates, Tom Stoppard, Tom Courtenay, Jean Kerr, and on and on. 

 2.  I'm almost done with Maggie O'Farrell's short 2006 novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.  O'Farrell recently won the Costa Novel Award for her latest book, which reminded me that I had this earlier book.   The plot of Esme is fast-moving, the sentences are short and lyrical, and it's a good women's read:  not great, but pretty good.

The theme of an old woman about to be released from a mental hospital into the community is strangely popular with Irish writers.  Think Reading Turgenev by William Trevor and The Sacred Scripture by Sebastian Barry and you'll get the idea.

O'Farrell's heroine, Esme, is probably not crazy.  She has spent 60 years in a mental hospital.  The hospital is closing and patients are being released to relatives and halfway houses.  Esme knows how to float away into a daydream, shutting out the images of the grille and the sounds of other patients.  No one has listened to her for years. 

Her great-niece, Iris Lockhart, the owner of a vintage clothing shop, has never heard of Esme.  Her grandmother, Kitty, never told her, due to the stigma. Then the hospital phones Iris.  Esme has nowhere to go.  Iris meets Esme and becomes sympathetic, unable to leave her at the hospital or at the junkie-haunted halfway house. She's on the list for a nursing home.

O'Farrell interweaves Esme's, Kitty's, and Iris's stories.  We learn about Esme's childhood in India, her parents' rejection of her, and the shock that sent her into moments of catatonia.  

Iris I find less interesting. She has her shop, a dog, and a cold-blooded affair with a married man (he's the one in love).  She is almost affectless.

Esme sees Iris as a younger version of her own cold mother and is fascinated.  

Because Iris is obviously Esme's friend here, she will probably turn into a semi-heroine.

I don't like this as much as The Sacred Scripture, but it's along those lines.


Anonymous said...

I've come across lots of snobbery towards Frazer's Must You Go. I thought all the condescension must be unfair unreal. You make the other sound good too. I'll get the Hill first :).

We are very cold here (Alexandria, Va) tonight.

Frisbee said...

I like the Fraser, but then I like diaries. I loved her biography of Marie Antoinette.

Anonymous said...

"Must You Go" is a moving memoir. She and Harold were truly lovers . The book is comparable to Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking". Talented women married to creative men; and the sense of loss at the end.

Frisbee said...

I did read The Year of Magical Thinking and liked it very much.