One of my favorite customer service people at the Mail Plus store on South Street called my attention to “Death Comes to Pemberley” by P.D. James a couple of months before it came out in December.
The book is a P.D. James mystery in a Jane Austen setting, a kind of sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.” While skeptical that anyone, even the fabulous P.D. James, could do justice to Jane Austen, I was intrigued. Over the holidays I began “Death Comes to Pemberley.”
James creates the setting just a few years after Elizabeth Bennett marries Mr. Darcy. As the story opens, Elizabeth’s sister Lydia arrives at Pemberley on a dark and stormy night, to announce hysterically that her husband, the notorious Wickham, has been killed in the Pemberley woods.
From there, a classic mystery evolves. P.D. James writes well, and she crafts a mystery just as well. I enjoyed reading this story. I liked the references to “Pride and Prejudice” and even to other Austen novels. But I missed two critical pieces–Austen’s light touch, and her focus on the women.
Alas, I’m married to someone who doesn’t appreciate Jane Austen’s sense of humor. I’ll often read aloud from what I consider a hilarious excerpt, and he just doesn’t laugh. But really, that humor is all over Austen. It’s in her clever conversation and observed gestures. The central act of this book, a death, squelches any chance of the light touch. The sense of appropriate solemnity at Pemberley hangs heavy throughout the story.
Much of the action revolves around Mr. Darcy, a stand-in for Adam Dalgliesh perhaps. I found myself wishing that P.D. James had instead woven the story around Elizabeth.
I don’t like what I’ve written because I wanted to love this book, and hoped to have only good things to say about something written by P.D. James.
I’ll still recommend this book to mystery readers, and even to fans of Jane Austen as an interesting accessory. I just won’t go overboard in my enthusiasm, and I’ll be clear that this is definitely a P.D. James book. And as I should have known from the start, if I want Jane Austen…then I need to read Jane Austen.
I came across this title on a “best of the year” list recently. I loved “House of Sand and Fog” written by Dubus years ago, and I’m always on the lookout for a memoir. “Townie” sounded interesting because of the relationship that Dubus III had with his father, Andre Dubus, the late short story writer.
Dubus III, his two brothers and sisters grew up primarily with their mother, living in blue collar neighborhoods in worn out Massachusetts cities of the 70s and 80s. Early on, he sensed that he was basically a chicken who allowed others to push him (and his family) around. He hated that about himself. Their neighborhoods saw plenty of violence and crime. His mother worked hard and was away from the house a lot. He and his dad, by then a faculty member at a small college nearby, saw each other on weekends, and sometimes for dinners together during the week.
Eventually, Dubus III became someone who threw punches at others. Much of this book chronicles the various fights in which he engaged. Because of the extensive focus on fighting, I found this to be a book about another world. I’ve never thrown a punch, and never been punched. I’ve never been friends with people who did so. The fighting began to seem tiresome. I kept waiting for him to find another way to live. Eventually, he did.
At a certain point, things stabilize. Dubus III decides to be an educated person. He gets to know his father, spends time with him. His mother and her long-term boyfriend remain in his life. Dubus III has an epiphany, an experience where he writes, and it is rewarding in ways he hadn’t predicted.
But a certain anger remains about how alone and afraid he was as a child, and how much he missed. A couple of images that I’ll keep from this book include one where Dubus III, maybe 12 or so, plays catch with his dad, and his dad is baffled that he doesn’t know how to throw a baseball. He never taught his son, and apparently it hadn’t occurred to him that he might not know how. Nor did he recognize that his son lived in a place where children weren’t engaged in sports. Similarly, when the elder Dubus referred to the Red Sox, his son honestly didn’t know what he was talking about.
As an adult, once he established a strong bond with his father, Dubus III tries to find a time and a way to tell his father how awful it was for him, his brothers and sister. A couple of opportunities slip through his fingers, and maybe it isn’t as critical as he thought.
What stays is that sense of loss and fear, expressed most often as explosive physical anger.
Dubus III writes well–he conveys what was bad about his upbringing, but he’s also a fine observer of the time and place where he grew up. There was room for fun, room for friendship. That he was such a sensitive observer probably explains both the fighting and his talent for writing.
Many readers of literary fiction enjoy the story behind the stories of their favorite authors, and certainly I’ll recommend this to people who loved “House of Sand and Fog.” I’m having a hard time putting my finger on the other audiences for this book and its themes of anger, transformation, physical violence, courage, and art–somehow that list reminds me of Hemingway. There is a whole sense of adventure here underpinned by intelligence–and that suggests that a wide audience indeed.
I finished it between the holidays, and while I enjoyed reading it, I didn’t ever feel “book lust” for it. I’ve been reflecting on that.
The novel has three basic strands. One is of a contemporary doctor, Natalia, living in an unnamed Balkan country. She and a friend travel to another country to treat orphans of the recent war. Natalia’s grandfather recently died, and during her trip she explores the somewhat mysterious circumstances of his death. The other two strands are based on stories her grandfather told her, of a deathless man, and of woman who befriended a tiger that escaped the zoo during World War Two.
I know that I tend to become frustrated with stories told in strands. I usually find one strand compelling, while the others seem like distractions. This is how I felt with “The Tiger’s Wife.” I wanted to stay with Natalia. The other strands began to seem too big, too distracting. I didn’t sense the kind of completion that I craved. I kept waiting for the three strands to come together in a compelling way.
I didn’t dislike the book, in fact, I liked it. I just didn’t find it as wonderful as others have.
What I enjoyed particularly were Obreht’s way with words, and many of the images she creates. For instance, when she was a child, Natalia often walked with her grandfather to the zoo, where they spent time watching the tigers. The story opens with a scene where they witness the tiger turning on a zookeeper who has been careless. The contrast between the warm grandfather with Natalia, and the attacking tiger with the zookeeper, stayed with me through the novel. Who IS the tiger?
I’ll recommend this to my friends who enjoy literary novels, who enjoy elements of magical realism, or who have an interest in the Balkan countries. I’ll also recommend this as a title with immense book club potential.
Over the holiday break, I read “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. How had I lived so long without reading it?
I enjoyed it immensely, this story of a Chinese farmer in pre-revolutionary China.
The novel opens with the wedding day of Wang Lung. His bride is a slave in a rich household. She is all that a man of his small means can afford. O-Lan turns out to be a faithful and hardworking wife. Her dreams parallel those of Wang Lung, to have sons, to farm successfully, to acquire land and wealth.
The story is told from Wang Lung’s view. Although his fortunes rise and fall, he ends up on top, owning vast amounts of land. He has three sons. He takes on a beautiful second wife, a former prostitute.
When his life goes wrong or awry, he realizes that to return to an even keel, he must return to the land.
The novel closes with Wang Lung telling his sons that the land must remain with them…and their conspiratorial glance indicates their other intentions.
Hillary Spurling, in her biography of Pearl Buck, “Pearl Buck in China,” points to Buck’s profound respect for Chinese people, especially the rural peasants, as the foundation of this book’s success. Buck’s familiarity with Chinese speech is clear in the rhythm of the words. At the time of the writing, Buck’s willingness to talk about sexuality was startling–I barely noticed it.
I was struck by Wang Lung’s seeming disregard for O-Lan. Buck does so well with presenting his point of view about her, and about women and girls generally. I wanted to hate him for his point of view, but Buck places him in the context of his time and place. She led me to take a less judgmental view. I see that I got a clearer view through her telling than I would have from my own 21st century viewfinder.
Why does this book remain popular? I have talked to so many people who love this book, who have re-read it many times. I see its appeal in the simplicity of the telling, mixed with the rhythm of the language.
“So many books, so little time.” How DO we decide when to go back and pick up a book that we “should” have read long ago? I confess–there are remarkable holes in my reading history. I’d hate to even start a list of what I should have read, but haven’t. In this case, I feel a rewarding sense of having filled a gap. I enjoyed the story and I have a better sense of everyday Chinese people before the Revolution. And I appreciate my new familiarity with a book that in so many ways made literary history.