Pardonable Lies

“Or, Maisie,”–he had looked at her intently–“the task of asking questions, of peeling back layers of the past, reveals something that has nothing to do with the cases and everything to do with ourselves.”

I read the first two books in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series about two years ago, and it was high time I returned to England between the wars.

In Pardonable Lies, Maisie is asked by Sir Cecil Lawton to fulfill his wife’s dying wish and investigate the death of their son in France during the war. She always believed that Ralph was alive, though in some ways he was dead to Sir Cecil even before becoming a pilot. When Maisie connects with her old school friend Priscilla she is surprised to receive a similar request. Peter is the only one of her brother’s whose grave she has not visited, because her mother threw away the telegram describing his death and burial.

pardonable liesWhat seem like routine investigations hold unseen challenges. Records are missing or inaccessible for both soldiers, and reading the papers the dead men left behind reveal that there may have been a link between the two. Unfortunately, that would mean a return to France for Maisie, who has not been since her dismal nursing days and injuries during the war over a decade prior. Her duties to her client and friend win out, and she embarks on a journey to confront the secrets and demons of the past.

Priscilla turned to Maisie. “I’m not used to this sort of talk, but here’s what I think: I think that the dragon is part of us. What happened, happened. We saw into the jaws of a terrible creature as he feasted upon us all. That is war. You have to find a way to acknowledge and live with it.”

Pardonable Lies turned out to be my favorite entry in the series so far. Maisie comes across as much more human and vulnerable. The plot was also…I don’t want to use the term romantic, but it’s the closest I can think of. We have undercover missions and secret liasons, and a French village that recalled Assignment in Brittany. The horror and tragedy of the war are still present, but I guess the figures involved just seemed more heroic somehow.

I wanted to finish this review first, but I hope there is not as long of a gap until I read the next Maisie Dobbs. I’ve heard that the series improves as it continues.

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Published in: on November 14, 2012 at 11:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I’m still trying to pick out and read the books I’m not sure I want to keep–ones that got a lot of buzz but may or may not actually live up to them. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell, is one such book.

The premise is that one day, Iris Lockheart gets a call from Cauldstone Hospital asking for her decision about her great-aunt Esme Lennox. The mental hospital for women is closing, and after sixty years of staying there Esme is deemed harmless enough to transition back into the real world.

the vanishing act of esme lennoxThe trouble is, Iris never knew Esme existed. Her own parents are dead, and her grandmother Kitty, who always claimed to be an only child, is in a nursing home herself with Alzheimer’s. Iris also has her own troubles to deal with–her relationship with her step-brother Alex and her affair with a married man–but somehow she finds herself drawn to her new-found relative.

O’Farrell writes the story from both Iris and Esme’s perspective. Esme isn’t necessarily an unreliable narrator, but her viewpoint is wandering and sometimes fragmented. She recalls things incompletely and revisits them later, especially concerning her early life, which makes the book more suspenseful. Even with Iris’s own story, O’Farrell carefully chooses what to reveal and when.

We learn a lot about Esme and Kitty’s childhood in India and eventually Scotland. Esme is a dreamy child who rebels against conventions. She has always been thought of as just a little strange, which a traumatic experience does nothing to help, but she is intelligent and could have gone to college if she were allowed. Instead she is stifled by what is expected of an Edwardian young woman, until a final desperate act causes her family to lock her away.

The bulk of the book is so sad–Esme’s experiences growing up, her empty life at the hospital, and what Iris learns about how all-too-common this plight was. I almost don’t want to think about the fact that things like this probably really happened to flighty daughters or mothers with PPD. As much as I like historical fiction, there are many advantages to our modern world. On the other hand, Iris’ part of the story feels unnecessary at times, an extra drama that detracts from the mood of the main threads. I also dislike when books have ambiguous or unresolved endings.

Overall, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is well-written, but incredibly haunting rather than enjoyable. It’s one I see myself remembering instead of rereading. Even if this book goes to the sale pile, which it still might, I highly recommend it.

Published in: on November 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nor Evil Dreams

I really wanted to like Nor Evil Dreams, by Rosemary Harris (this one, not the actress or current mystery author). I got it for a quarter several years ago at the Brookline Library sale shelves because it was advertised as “A Simon and Schuster Novel of Suspense” and I’ve always seen myself as a repository for old gothic and suspense books. In this case “old” means 1968 rather than historical.

nor evil dreamsPrudence Brenning and her housemate Victoria are teachers at a private school in London. Though Prue is a new hire, she has heard about the anti-Semitism that happened a year or two before. Now, however, it seems to be flaring up again. Then the local temple burns down, killing the rabbi’s son. To make matters worse, Prue accidentally left her recorder for recitations on in the library common room and taped a conversation implying that the fire was intentional. Unsure of what to do, she takes the tape to history teacher and Holocaust survivor Mark Bronov.

Prue is already half in love with Mark, despite the age difference and his reclusive nature. At her urging, he tells her about his experiences in the concentration camp and his power struggle with a sadistic German officer, who escaped when the Allied forces arrived. It is this officer, Max, who may be the man mentioned in the tape, come back to hunt him down.

Mark insists on a lot of secrecy, but someone still seems to be after Prue; one day, when home sick from school and sleeping, she is almost strangled. Eventually she and Mark are quietly married and she moves in with him, which brings its own set of problems. The suddenness of the affair drives a wedge between Prue and Victoria. Mark has recently brought his orphaned nephew Janni back from abroad, a surly teenager whom Prue believes hangs out with an anti-Semitic crowd. A strange old man is hanging out around the house. Something is wrong that Prue can’t quite put her finger on.

And then!

SPOILER ALERT Big twist!

So. Turns out that Mark is actually Max, the Nazi officer who took the identity of one of the prisoners in order to escape without punishment. He and his friends were responsible for the temple fire. He killed the old man, the real Bronov, for fear he would be revealed. But he loves Prue and is changing his ways, really. And Prue, still loving him despite her horror at his murdering ways, is thisclose to running off with him to South America like he asks, so she shoots and kills him. And serves a short prison sentence because she believes herself guilty. And plans to bring up the child she carries alone to try to make amends for both herself and Mark/Max.

WTH? END SPOILER

It’s probably very telling that I had to start another book very soon after finishing this one, that it showed up briefly in my dreams that night, and that I’m shuddering now even writing about it. I’m not sure why it affected me so strongly. I was trying to tell my mom about it, and she said it sounded like it was very well-plotted. It is! It’s just rubbing me the wrong way.

The stubborn part of me is still having trouble putting the book in the sale pile, especially since I still have one other by her (The Double Snare). And I guess I’ll read it at some point. But it concerns amnesia and maybe a slight political subplot, and I think there are lots of other books that I would like to read first.

Has a book ever affected you in a negative way. more than just dislike?

Published in: on November 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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