Friday, April 15, 2011

Buying Books & Monica Dickens's The Nightingales Are Singing

I bicycle to B&N and peruse several books. I end up in the coffee house reading a few pages of Stewart O'Nan's Emily, Alone, and a chapter of Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason. Perhaps I could buy them and return them the next day if I don't like them, but it's easier to sort through them on-site.  I buy both books, because I want them. 

The next day, I set out to read O'Nan or Shorto, but somehow it's not a contemporary day.  I feel kind of spinsterish in this rain (though I'm married), and, finding a copy of Monica Dickens's The Nightingales Are Singing, begin to read.  Dickens was Charles Dickens's great-granddaughter, and wrote several comic memoirs, comic novels, and serious novels.  Her stuff falls somewhere between Barbara Pym and Nancy Mitford.

Set in post-war London and Washington, D.C., The Nightingales Are Singing is part domestic comedy, part serious novel about marriage.  The heroine is Christine, head saleswoman of a book department at Goldwyn's department store, and known as "the estimable Miss Cope."  Unmarried at 34, she is an ideal bookstore employee.  She "moved calmly about the alleys between the bright new paper jackets, knowing that book customers liked to take their time, unlike the thrusters who stampeded through the Notions with never a moment to spare." She finally meets a man who wants to marry her, a dull American naval commander who takes her out to restaurants and likes her family.  For a time she refers to him only as "the American."  It could be romantic, but it's not.  He gives her family ham and other much-appreciated food that Americans have access to.  On the first date, she learns his name is Vinson, and there is slight confusion over his name.  Christine does not particularly like him.  She does not, however, want to end up like Aunt Jo, a spinster, who urges her to marry.  It does not have to be romantic love.  It can be a simple marriage to a decent man, Aunt Jo insists.

One empathizes with Christine.  In our thirties, we are ALL particular. Though middle-aged people insist romance is not essential, Christine finds it hard to compromise.  The appropriate man is not always the right one.

We do and don't want Christine to marry Vinson.

They do get married, and the marriage is difficult.  Christine has to adjust to Washington, D.C.  She is so good-natured that she submits to Vinson on almost every point.  He is sweet, but unimaginative.  There's no getting around it.  He adores her, but is ultra-conservative.  She loves him, but wishes she were working.  He disapproves of Christine's quirky, sloppy housewife friend.  He is worried about impressing admirals and their stiff wives.

Parts are screamingly funny.  When they move to a house, Christine gets scammed by a charming vacuum cleaner salesman, but she insists to her husband that the vacuum is first-rate.  She takes sewing lessons from a woman who cannot thread the machine.  At an immigration office, when Christine's visa turns out to have expired, Dickens hilariously illustrates the incompetence of the staff.   When Vinson's hypochondriac mother visits from Illinois, she never stops talking and only the vacuum cleaner drowns her out.

But some very sad things also happen in the novel.  And does the marriage work?

I won't tell you.

This novel is free online at the Internet Archive

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