The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

Titled My Last Duchess outside of the US

Many reviews of this entertaining novel have mentioned that “If you’re missing Downton Abbey, read this to fill the void” and really this could have been the story of Lady Grantham if she had married a dissembling dirt bag instead of Lord Grantham, who seems like a good guy.

This particular story tells the saga of Cora Cash, an American heiress to a flour fortune who stumbles into marriage with an Englishman, the Duke of Wareham. Cora is headstrong, feisty, selfish and demanding, yet she is also innocent and trusting. The combination of these traits makes her a realistic character. Her mother’s dream has always been to marry her to English nobility yet Cora surprises everyone when she truly falls in love with the Duke and he seems to fall in love with her too (not to mention her money). The novel covers the span of their first year of marriage in which Ivo, the Duke, leaves for five months to accompany the Prince of Wales to India as Cora marks time at their home, Lulworth, waiting for their child to be born.

Social mishaps, ill-advised purchases, trust in the wrong people, all befall Cora before the year is out. And so does the discovery that her husband is not the stellar human being we all knew he wasn’t.

Also similar to Downton Abbey is the parallel storyline of Cora’s maid, Bertha, and her romance with the Duke’s valet, Jim. This was interesting and sweet, but I always preferred to read about the goings on above stairs. The lavish meals, wicked manipulations, dazzling dresses and coy flirtations had me spellbound.

I listened to this on audio during my daily commute. It’s read by Katherine Kellgren who does a top-notch job. She gives every character their own distinct voice and they were all so different I knew exactly what character was speaking during scenes with dialogue.

Though not as endearing as Downton Abbey, I have to say this really is a good substitute. It is a hugely tantalizing read!

(I apologize for the photo. I took it on my phone at work where the harsh office lighting was not conducive to good photography!)

Other thoughts:

BookBath

Book Group of One

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Library Loot, July 27 – August 2

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

Here are my library check-outs for this week.

From the top:

1. Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland. I have no particular interest in this, but I saw it on the shelf and thought it looked like something I can get totally captivated by. We’ll see… Has anyone read it?

2. Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch. Orange Prize nominee, Booker Prize long listed, and it has the sound of a rambunctious and exuberant story. I’m very much looking forward to it!

3. The FitzOsbornes in Exile by Michelle Cooper. This is the sequel to A Brief History of Montmoray which I finished a few days ago and will post about soon. The first novel was a completely absorbing read and I can’t wait to start this sequel.

4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I got a wild hair the other day and impulsively checked this out. I read it a lifetime ago when I was a teen and Sylvia Plath seemed romantic. I admit I still have a tiny obsession with her!

5. Snowdrops by A.D. Miller. I started reading this Booker long lister last night and am smitten! Decadent, treacherous, cynical Moscow – not my usual fare, but fascinating and witty.

Oooh, my list is making me jealous of myself! I think I brought home some outstanding titles this week. What have you taken out of your library recently?

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

There’s been an interruption to my scheduled reading plans because I have been stressed at work and needed pure escape. I haven’t read a good British mystery in a while and when I saw a review of this on Book Group of One it sounded like just the respite I needed. I plunged into it last week and shoved the other books I’d planned to read under the bed so they’d be out of mind. But I think they would have been out of mind anyway because this mystery completely absorbed my interest!

Ruth Galloway, the main character in The Crossing Places, is my soul sister. She’s in her late thirties, overweight, single, has two cats and keeps to herself for the most part. I instantly identified with her. She’s a forensic archaeologist in a desolate marsh area near Norfolk. When the novel opens she’s been summoned by the local police force to examine some bones that have been found on the marsh. Those bones turn out to be from the Iron Age, but she proves herself useful and is soon after asked to consult on the case of a missing girl and begins to develop a relationship with married DCI Harry Nelson. As the case, and her involvement in it, intensifies, the suspense accelerates and Ruth finds herself pursued by a killer. A blockbuster ending in the dark and dangerous marsh had me flipping the pages to find out if she’d survive and if the killer would be revealed.

This is an engrossing, solid mystery. I’m taken with both Ruth and DCI Nelson and will continue to read the series if only to see where their relationship ends up. The snippets of historical details that twist through the narrative are a treat for those of us who have fantasies of being archaeologists and the setting is appropriately dark and moody. And that is all that I needed to keep me entertained and distracted while my brain melts with worry.

What do you read when you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown?

Forgive My Absence

I just wanted to let all of my faithful readers (both of you) know that I have been hideously burned out at work and haven’t had the time or inclination to post or read others’ posts this week. I did finish a marvelous mystery a few days ago and will write about that soon. For now I’m headed to bed as I work day three of seven days in a row tomorrow. Goodnight, my friends!

Library Loot July 13 – 19

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

I only came home with 5 books this week, which is kind of a miracle for me as I work in a library and usually take home many more books than just five.

From the top:

1. Giant by Edna Ferber. I’ve been wanting to read Ferber since the spring when I read about her in Elaine Showalter’s excellent literary history A Jury of Her Peers. I suggested Ferber for Katrina at Pining for the West’s CPR Book Group,  yet I still haven’t read her. I started this book tonight and am thoroughly enjoying it so far. It’s a family saga set among rich Texas ranchers – what’s not to love?

2. Daphne by Justine Picardie. Helen from She Reads Novels wrote an enticing review of this last week and I immediately placed a request for it to be sent from our main branch.

3. A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper. This young adult novel has been on my TBR for a while and I finally picked it up when I realized that I haven’t read a YA novel since May. This has been compared to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and it definitely has the same structure (a series of diary entries) but seems to be a bit more melancholy and dark.

4. Night and Day by Virginia Woolf. I was tempted into checking this out as it is one of the first novels mentioned in (see below)

5. A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman. I’ve always wanted to read this history of women’s writing from 1914-1939 by the founder of Persephone Books, but copies are expensive on Amazon. I discovered that my local university library had a copy and requested it through ILL. It is pristine – I wonder when it was last checked out? I was so anxious to start it that I surreptitiously read while working the reference desk today, but I promise I didn’t neglect any patrons!

Have you checked anything out from the library this week?

My Life in France by Julia Child & Alex Prud’Homme

This winning autobiography by the lively Child is a must-read for anyone who likes food or who likes France. Or both, of course! Child and her husband, Paul, move to France in 1948 to fulfill a cultural officer appointment Paul receives from the US government. From the description of the couple landing at Le Havre to their drive into post-war Paris, Child enchants with her enthusiasm, sparkling dynamism and wit. The passage she writes about her first-ever meal in a French restaurant seems almost fairy-tale like and I suppose it was in a way because it completely transformed her life. She becomes obsessed with French food and cooking and spends the next 5 years in Paris learning all she can about ingredients, methods and techniques. Even when the couple leaves Paris for stints in Marseilles, Germany and Norway, she is constantly tinkering with recipes especially as, by this time, she has teamed up with two French ladies to write a little book about French cooking.

There is a lot in the book about the tedious and exhausting process that led to Child getting their book published in the States. The narrative also follows her budding television career and superstardom in the food world, but the most glittering passages are when she writes about France and the food that inspires her. These passages skip and leap off the page and were a joy to read.

The only hesitation that I have about recommending the book is the graphic and intense depictions of the preparation of meat. As someone who is naturally squeamish about these things I had to take a deep breath and plow through when Child mentions killing lobster or ducks or deer. Just a warning for vegetarians and animal lovers.

Julia Child was one of the most energetic and passionate people of our time. We can all learn a lot from her about discovering our passions and pursuing our goals and about embracing different cultures. Another great read for Paris in July.

Gigi by Colette

Translated from the French by Roger Senhouse

Surprisingly, I knew hardly anything about Gigi before I read this novelette. I have never seen the musical and only vaguely remembered hearing anything about it. I think this was good. It made the story more riveting and delightful for me not knowing the characters or the outcome of the story beforehand.

So, unlike me, all of you probably know the Gigi story, therefore I won’t rehash the plot. But I will give my impressions. I loved Madame Alvarez and her sister Aunt Alicia. Their pronouncements on everything from jewels to actresses to motor cars were amusing and entertaining. The everyday details that Colette infuses her story with made it come to life for me. I relished reading about what the characters were wearing, eating and how they were styling their hair. It was endlessly fascinating. It gave me a glimpse into what life was like for them at the end of the nineteenth century in Paris.

How can any reader not adore Gigi? This innocent yet headstrong teen usurps the combined years of wisdom of her grandmother and aunt to achieve the desired outcome they had been scheming for – and more! She is a charming and fascinating character.

Seen through modern eyes this story is distasteful and kind of shocking, but completely entertaining when modern sensibilities are cast aside. I very much liked this and will seek out more of Colette’s writings in the future.

Fashions from 1899 - would Gigi have worn something like these?

Enough About Love by Herve Le Tellier

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

Enough About Love is a contemporary novel that follows two very similar couples and their relationships. In that respect, it reminds me of the last book I posted on, The Odd Women. That novel also charted the parallel relationships of two couples. In Enough About Love our couples are Anna and Yves and Thomas and Louise. Anna and Louise are described as almost the same person – both very attractive, approaching 40 and successful professionals. Also, both married with children. Yves and Thomas are also quite similar – in their 50’s, quiet and smitten with these women who come into their lives so unexpectedly.

The difference lies in the women and their reaction and feelings about these new relationships. Louise immediately recognizes Thomas as someone she wants to leave her husband for and promptly does so. She smoothly transitions into life with him. Anna, however, has concerns and doubts about Yves as a person and about herself. She desperately waffles back and forth until finally deciding which path their relationship will take.

This novel’s structure reminded me of that of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Each chapter focuses on a different character’s or group of characters perspective and how they related to each other. There were also a couple of chapters that employed the use of non-traditional narrative forms including one where the text of a speech that Yves is delivering is printed on one side of the page and the thoughts of one of the audience members is printed on the other side.

I enjoyed the philosophical questions that were unearthed by the travails of the characters and the dissection of language and aging that was also a large part of the novel. It seemed very French to me. So did the laid back attitude toward adultery. None of the characters really feels guilty about engaging in extramarital affairs and they all even involve their children in these relationships.

This book seems at first to be a simple story of falling in love, but the more I think about it the more fruitful it appears. I set the book down many times mid-read to ponder a point raised by one of the characters. To me, that is one of the marks of successful literature.

Enough About Love is a book I probably wouldn’t have read if not for Paris in July. That’s why I love these blogging events that introduce us to new authors and genres we’d normally skip over.

My Paris

It’s July and we’re in Paris! Today starts the Paris in July event co-hosted by Karen at BookBath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea. I’ve never been to the real City of Lights, but am delighted to take this virtual trip throughout the month of July. Over on my sidebar under the ‘Forthcoming’ header (the first 3 items)  you can see the books I plan to read for the event. I’m not a fast reader so I’ve just listed a few and, hopefully, I’ll be able to relish the four books (I’m reading Enough About Love now) I’ve planned to read this month.

My ideas of Paris all seem to revolve around film and fashion. I fell in love with classic movies as a teen and watched many films set in Paris, mostly the Paris of the ’50’s and ’60’s. Around the same time I took out a subscription to Vogue and through its pages Paris was solidified in my mind as the center of stylishness. I’m no longer much of a movie watcher and I canceled my Vogue subscription years ago, but these two influences have colored my view of Paris forever.

One classic film in particular always comes to mind when I think of Paris. It’s not a French film, but a 1957 George Gershwin musical starring Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson – Funny Face. In the film, Audrey Hepburn’s character Jo is a mousy, serious bookstore clerk until she is discovered by Fred Astaire’s photographer character and whisked away by him (and an imperious magazine editor) to Paris to model an exquisite wardrobe designed by Givenchy. It is a truly enjoyable and strikingly memorable film. Perfect to watch this month!

What says ‘Paris’ to you?