Saturday, June 27, 2020

Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

One of the benefits and challenges of belonging to a book club is the expectation to read someone else's book choice. I feel fortunate that in my book clubs (yes, I'm in more than one), the members are good sports about reading and coming prepared to discuss such a variety of books, even when these might not have been our personal first choices. We learn as much about each other as about the books themselves.

This month for one book club, I read The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki, a well-researched work of historical fiction that I might not have considered reading otherwise. I will admit that I had a little bit of trouble with the first pages. A debut novel, the introduction felt a bit clunky. I also caught myself looking up words the characters used (such as surreal) to confirm my suspicion that they were a bit anachronistic.

Nevertheless, this novel about a Bavarian girl Elisabeth (called Sisi) who married Emperor Franz Joseph of the Habsburg dynasty, when his empire, in addition to Austria, included Hungary, Italy, and France, introduced me a part of European history that was totally unfamiliar. Sisi was raised without the strict upbringing of a royal court. She loved riding horses and spending time out of doors. Originally, she wasn't intended to be the wife of her first cousin Franz. (Yes, there's that cousin issue.) Her older sister had been selected by Sophie, her aunt that became her mother-in-law.

Marrying Sisi was one of the rare occasions when Franz bucked his mother's plans. After the marriage, though, she took charge. And when the couple's children came alone, Sophie took over them too. Surrounded by ladies in waiting who reported her every move, Sisi fell into a depression and focused on her appearance, spending hours on her hair and skin.

While the discomfiting details Pataki shares about Sisi's life are supported by research, to the people in her husband's kingdom, she was beloved. She is credited with some of her husband's political successes.  Her diaries also provide much insight into her life. Partake also goes into detail about an alleged romance between her and Andrassy, one of the powerful figures in Hungary.

As I read this novel, I found myself searching the and Youtube videos--to learn more about the most interesting powerful woman. I found that yes, she was known for her elaborate hairstyles and her corseted 18-inch waist. I also found that there is so much more to her story, which explains why Pataki has written a sequel.

When our book club met to discuss the book, one of the members, originally from Germany, told us that when she grew up, Sisi was their Cinderella. They knew all of the wonderful things about her. I couldn't help making my own connections to Princess Di and to Jackie Kennedy--and most recently, Meghan Markle. All these women's stories are a reminder that a royal lifestyle leaves much to be desired--especially for strong women with minds of their own.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson: A Novel I Never Expected Her to Write

I've been reading Southern author Joshilyn Jackson's novels since I discovered Gods in Alabama with my book club. The Florida native, educated in Georgia, knows the South. Her writing is pitch perfect whether she is discussing football, scandal, or church dinners.

I recently read (and wrote about) Almost Sisters, but didn't even know Never Have I Ever had been published until I got a recommendation from a friend who pointed out that it was not like anything Jackson had written. Still firmly set in the South, this book is more of a suspense novel that a Southern family story.

Amy Whey, the protagonist of the novel, is hosting the monthly neighborhood book club, organized and run by her best friend Charlotte, when a new nearby renter Roux floats in and takes over, generously raiding Amy's liquor cabinet to serve the book club members while introducing her game: What's the worst thing you've done today...this week...this year...ever.

Readers then travel by flashback to Amy's past when, as an overweight, unhappy outsider in high school, she is involved in a fatal accident. She eventually transforms her life, has a new husband, baby, and a stepdaughter she loves, but she keeps her secrets.

Roux's handsome son pays more attention to Amy's stepdaughter than she finds comfortable. Then when Roux turns her game into a blackmail scheme, Amy has to decide how to extricate herself while protecting herself, her friends, and especially her family.

Amy's own transformation came when she learned to dive, a hobby she has turned into a teaching career. While I know almost nothing about scuba diving, Jackson's details are convincing as she takes readers along on a dive into a shipwreck off the Florida coast. Just as realistic is her psychological exploration of a woman who has much to lose and must rely on her wits to win against a diabolical woman.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Crusoe's Daughter by Jane Gardam

Books don't fit into a true diagnosis of hoarding; that's my firm conviction. While I admit to waves of guilt when I rearrange my shelves and see books I haven't quite managed to read yet, I still give them a place to wait. Too many times to mention, when I've finished one book without another pestering me to read it, I've scanned my shelves and landed on just the right book at just the right time.

During this period of quarantine, I've had access to the library's electronic collections, both audio and print. Sometimes, I have found my time limit up before I've finished reading, and the book is whisked away to the next reader on the waiting list.

I'm also thankful that Parnassus Books still continued to deliver book orders, after having to abandon curbside pick-up.

My own book collection, though, has been a treasure trove through spring and into summer. Early this week, I was drawn to Jane Gardam's novel Crusoe's Daughter, which has been waiting for several years. The book, originally published in 1985, arrived by post a few years ago with a few others from the Europa Editions, including Old Filth, another novel by Gardam. It too had to wait its turn, richly rewarding my efforts when I finally decided to read it.  Likewise, Crusoe's Daughter hadn't come up in a single book discussion, so I'm not sure why I decided to read it now.

Set in a remote, marshy area of England in the first half of the twentieth century, the novel follows Polly Flint, a motherless child left with her two old aunts when her father leaves for sea, where he dies. Along with Mrs. Woods, their boarder, Polly meets a parade of people, housemaids, delivery boys, the local nuns, and the Ziets, a wealthy German family with children near her age, building a second home nearby.

Despite the title's suggestion, this is not a reimagining of Robinson Crusoe's abandoned offspring. Instead, Polly, who never attends school formally, is taught languages and music by her aunts and Mrs. Woods but spends much of her time reading and rereading Dafoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, eventually translating it into German and French and writing volumes of critical response.

While distanced from both world wars, Polly and the other residents of the Yellow House feel its effects in increasing but subtle measures. Not only does the novel unveil the evolution of Polly's character, but it also examines the structure of the English novel as well.

Crusoe's Daughter exhibits the subtlety one expects from a decidedly English novel, springing clever surprises, playing with language, and sending me searching for a pencil so I can make note of passages I want to recall or to discuss with the next person with whom I share this delightful book.