The Fair Miss Fortune

by D. E. Stevenson

What a sweet, funny, and charming book! That is if you like old-fashioned chaste romances set in the English countryside. And who doesn’t? Well lots of people, I guess. But I like them. Not as a steady diet, but if they are as well written, and as beautifully narrated as this one, I could get used to it.

Miss Jane Fortune causes quite a stir when she comes to the insular village of Dingleford with her old nanny to open a tea shop. She charms everyone in sight with her beauty and sweetness. Especially the eligible bachelors. Everyone except Mrs. Prescott who sold her her cottage/future tea shop. She is an overbearing entitled old battle-ax who mercilessly bullies and dominates her son Harold. You know the type. Miss Fortune and the most eligible bachelor in the village, Charles Weatherford, soon become quite close. One day, Jane’s twin sister, Joan, a slightly more impulsive and unconventional version of Jane, comes to stay. She is escaping from an amorous Frenchman who has vowed to chase her to the ends of the earth. Jane agrees to keep Joan’s existence a secret, to protect her. Thus begins, at times, an hilarious comedy of errors, wonderfully narrated by Patience Tomlinson. I listened to this on Audible. Charles, meeting Joan, thinking she’s Jane, is very confused by her indifferent behavior and falls out of love with her. Joan unaccountably falls in love with the browbeaten mama’s boy, Harold Prescott, who is amazed at her sincere interest (as is the reader). The scene where Mrs. Prescott visits Jane, thinking she is the shameless hussy who is attempting to ensnare her beloved son is priceless. Jane may be sweet, but she has enough spirit and poise to spare. She is not to be underestimated, especially in the face of the character assassination of her beloved sister.

The book is peopled with some very well-drawn characters: Jane and Joan’s nanny, Charles’ Mother, the shopkeeper who sells Harold some exercise books, the middle-aged colonel, horrid Mrs. Prescott, and especially Harold, who knows he is “a worm” but vows to make himself worthy of the Fair Miss Fortune.
The only criticism I have is the book ends too abruptly and leaves some loose ends regarding the endearing Harold and his mother.
Probably if I had read it it would have been 3 stars, the narration made it 4. so **3 1/2 stars**

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

December 2, 2021

The Inn at Lake Divine

by Elinor Lipman

It’s Jewish Natalie Marx v. the restricted to gentiles only Vermont resort in the Catskills. Ms. Lipman is a good writer: engaging and amusing. The book is a light and frothy social comedy tackling the issue of antisemitism in the ’60s and ’70s. It takes some surprising twists and turns that keep one’s interest. I am not one to stick with a book on principle if it is not entertaining. The romance is mild but nice, taking second priority to the character development and cultural exploration of Jewish v. Gentile manners and family ways. I will definitely be giving this author another whirl.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

January 11, 2016

The Loving Couple

Virginia Rowans (Patrick Dennis)

Despite Patrick Dennis’s trenchant and sometimes problematic skewering of 1950s New York society and their behavior and attitudes, this was, at its heart a sweet story. The young married couple in whose company we spend almost all of our time is good, kind, smart yet rather innocent, and thoroughly decent. They are the only people in the book who escape the authors cruel yet funny barbs.

The book begins with an epic quarrel between John and Mary, once very happy and in love, and now dissatisfied. Their 6-year marriage changed a year ago when John gave up his writing career, took a high-paying job, and moved to Riveredge, an exclusive suburban mecca for affluent New Yorkers of a certain status and income.
Here is the ideal Riveredge couple as described by the author:

Together they deplored reactionaries, Hollywood and Miami, bright colors, communism and fascism, juke boxes, slums, child labor, strong labor unions, vulgarity, social climbers, snobs, comic books, tabloids, the Reader’s Digest, Life and the Book-of-the-Month Club—although they solemnly agreed that anything that instilled the reading habit among those less fortunately endowed couldn’t be entirely bad. You could hardly wonder that everybody loved the Martins.
“Well, you’re out bright and early,” Whitney said, his tortoise shell glasses and splendid white teeth sparkling in the sunlight. Whitney’s statement, while cordial, also managed to convey surprise, criticism and hope for reform

John has stormed out of his house and left Mary. He spends the day on his own meeting old friends, visiting old haunts, spending time with his shady and vulgar boss of one year, and almost cheating on his wife with the boss’s evil daughter. After a series of appalling encounters and painful adventures, He realizes that his wife is the only decent person in New York City and environs.

Meanwhile, Mary, his lovely wife, is having a similar set of horrific experiences throughout her day. She goes to the city in the clutches of her “friend”, Fran, to escape her big sister Alice a relentless scold and bully.

Alice was active in Planned Parenthood. A couple of decades earlier, Alice would most certainly have been jailed for passing out contraceptives on the cathedral steps. Today she took a more moderate, but no less ardent, stand. Alice believed that those who could afford children should have all the children they could afford and when they could afford them. Alice always said that it was the duty of superior people to bring forth superior offspring. So far Alice and Fred had produced two—a boy of seven, given to chronic nausea and bedwetting, and a girl of five with nineteen distinct allergies. Alice and Fred felt that they could now afford to treat mankind to yet another superior being, and its birth had been as carefully plotted as the Invasion of Normandy.

By the time John and Mary coincidentally meet up at the end of the night outside the old apartment in which they were so happy, they have been through the gauntlet, are ready to fall into each other’s arms in relief and gratitude. They are more than ready to start a whole new life. Or rather, return to their old one.

Patrick Dennis wittily leaves no section of the populace unscathed. Many of his descriptions of the people and their antics are laugh-out-loud funny, but most are pretty bitter as well. He saves his most stinging barbs for…well everybody gets pretty well raked over the coals. The unconscious and casual racism is a little hard to take even if you can keep it in the context of its times. It is quite similar in tone and structure to The Joyous Season, but some of his zingers in that novel come off gentler, funnier, and less corrosive coming from the first-person narration of a formidable but lovable 10-year-old boy.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

October 16, 2021

Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors

by Sonali Dev

HRH’s take on it was this advice to his children: “This is our home. This country is yours. Take everything you need. Give everything you have. From the beginning of time, humans have migrated. We’ve claimed land and let it claim us. Don’t ever fulfill anybody else’s definition of your relationship with your country. How many generations ago their forefathers got here may be how some people stake their claim, but I stake mine with how much I give. How wholly I love. This place called to me, I’m here, it’s mine. And now, it’s yours.”

I’m a soft touch for novels that are re-imaginings of or sequels to Jane Austen‘s works in film or on the page. I have a soft spot for even ones that are not all that good. This is one of the best ones. Sonali Dev did a masterful job of using P and P as an inspiration for similar themes while making it wholly her own. The looseness of the adaptation worked very well. A reader who enjoys contemporary romance or women’s fiction would enjoy this even if they haven’t read Pride and Prejudice. There are many characters in Dev’s novel that are not in the original and many characters and situations Austen’s classic that are not in Dev’s novel. Yet while they diverge in interesting ways, they also mirror each other in the essentials. There is the prideful, arrogant, but socially inept aristocrat (Trisha), the formidable love interest from a suspect background (DJ), victimized loved ones past and present, the evil opportunist, The cold and powerful head determined to “protect” the family from scandal, and the sweet and good sister. But they are deliciously shuffled up. A few scenarios are faithfully and delightfully reset in today’s times. One of the highlights of Austen’s work and this one as well is when Trisha (Darcy) pours out her heart to DJ (Elizabeth) and is rejected.

“I have absolutely no interest in you, Dr. Raje,” meeting the wild pleas in her eyes…it hadn’t struck her for one instant that he might not lap up her proposition or whatever this was.
“This might baffle you, but despite not being a physician, I do have some pride. Although most certainly not enough to withstand the kind of beating you’re capable of dealing to it. The kind of beating you’ve repeatedly dealt it from the first time we’ve met. You’re right, I value honesty, so I’ll tell you that I make it a practice not to find women who insult me at every opportunity attractive.”
…she looked entirely devastated. Had no one ever denied her anything?

One thing I really liked about it was how the black hero in the book was portrayed. Too often, lately, it seems like authors are using diverse ethnic characters to make a political statement but they are ethnic in looks alone. In one book I read recently, we’re told that the swoony successful love interest looks like Barack Obama, but other than that, he might as well be a white guy. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but it’s like the author wanted points for having a diverse cast of characters but didn’t want to make her mostly white readership too uncomfortable. Kind of like the Hallmark channel checking the boxes. Oh well, baby steps. In this one, Trisha, although “brown” has always had power and privilege. Unlike DJ who knows very well what is probably going to happen if a white cop sees him breaking into his own luxury car.

“Are you laughing because you think you taught me some sort of lesson?” Because he had, he had pulled the world from beneath her feet…DJ had stood there helpless as a cop reached for his gun for no reason other than fear based in prejudice…Trisha didn’t want him to be standing there in that inequitable ocean, unable to do anything about it. She wanted to live in a world where the waves hit everyone the same way, where everyone could choose how they surfed them. Where the only thing that mattered was ability. And she had allowed herself to become oblivious to the fact that they did not live in that world. 

I was not too impressed with the first book I read by Ms Dev. This one also slowed to a crawl in several places. It was repetitive (the constant rhapsodizing about food got old and kind of creepy in places, to me) There were a little too many tangents explored and too much detail which did little to advance the story. But even so, it kept my interest. Sometimes the sentence structure seemed a little off and sentence meaning was a little obscured at first. But this book was a really good novel and a superbly creative riff on Pride and Prejudice. I love books about interesting families and especially ones I have to do a family tree to keep everyone straight. 4 stars for the novel and 5 stars for the Pride and Prejudice connection. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

May 16, 2020

A Bollywood Affair

by Sonali Dev

The concept of this story was unusual and intriguing. Mili was married in India at 4 years old. She hasn’t seen her husband since he lives in America. Now grown, Mili wins a fellowship to study in Michigan and is looking forward to reuniting with her husband. Meanwhile, thinking the marriage had been annulled, her husband has gotten married and has a child. He sends his famous Hollywood director brother to get an annulment from Mili. The possibilities were exciting. Mili was a throw-back to the very early romantic heroines, as was Samir, the bad-boy who at heart was a true knight in shining armor. Yet, because Mili was an Indian and a stranger in a strange land it did not offend my modern sensibilities. Unfortunately, right at about page 100, I lost interest. It became repetitive, the plot was not advanced and it seemed to go around in circles. I still liked the characters, but I got bored, and skipped through the rest of the book to the big reveal, and lingered over an unexpected plot development regarding Samir. However, the comeuppance was ruined by severe over-reaction on the part of our heroine, and not balanced by enough groveling on the part of the hero. A great plot, but a missed opportunity.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

March 4, 2015

The Enchanted April

By Elizabeth Von Arnim

“And the more he treated her as though she were really very nice, the more Lotty expanded and became really very nice, and the more he, affected in his turn, became really very nice himself; so that they went round and round, not in a vicious but in a highly virtuous circle.”

This was a lovely book narrated beautifully by Nadia May. The story is already well known, I think, if not from the book then by the multiple award-winning and Oscar-nominated movie, directed by Mike Newell. I saw the movie again a couple of months ago, was inspired to (finally) read the book, and now I want to see the movie again!

Four very different women disappointed by life and love, strangers to each other, decide to rent a beautiful villa in Italy together. Two are married and two are not. The two married ones, Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot were once in love with their husbands and vice versa but time and temperament have estranged them. Lotty is shy and spiritless and her husband squashes her. She has very little filter and is sometimes awkward and imprudent. She has not been an asset to his career. Rose has driven her husband away by her devotion to her church and doing good works for the poor. She coldly disapproves of him. He leaves her to herself and to her religion. She is confused by her unhappiness. Rose and Lotty are getting away from their husbands as much as they are attracted by the prospect of escaping London for beautiful Italy. Mrs. Fisher is a dried-up selfish old snob who lives in the past. Beautiful wealthy Lady Caroline is trying to escape men altogether. They all inevitably fall in love with her at first sight, much to her dismay, and won’t leave her alone. She calls them “Grabbers”. She was the most interesting of the four women, to me. Improbably nicknamed “Scrap,” She is self-absorbed, but I loved her. All she wants is solitude, but people won’t stop bothering her. Her lovely countenance hides inner bitterness, boredom, and disillusionment.

“…but it was her fate that however coldly she sent forth her words they came out sounding quite warm and agreeable. That was because she had a sympathetic and delightful voice…. Nobody in consequence ever believed they were being snubbed. It was most tiresome. And if she stared icily it did not look icy at all, because her eyes, lovely to begin with, had the added loveliness of very long, soft, dark eyelashes. No icy stare could come out of eyes like that… it got caught and lost in the soft eyelashes, and the persons stared at merely thought they were being regarded with a flattering and exquisite attentiveness. And if ever she was out of humour or definitely cross— and who would not be sometimes in such a world?—-she only looked so pathetic that people all rushed to comfort her, if possible by means of kissing. It was more than tiresome, it was maddening. Nature was determined that she should look and sound angelic. She could never be disagreeable or rude without being completely misunderstood.”

Poor lady!

One by one, by the end, all four of the unhappy women, have their lives transformed by the enchanted beauty of San Salvatore. Two marriages are restored when their husbands visit and see their wives transformed. Lady Caroline learns gratitude and sees herself with clear eyes, and finally realizes that love is a blessing, not a curse, and, perhaps, lets it into her life. Mrs. Fisher, who was thoroughly unlikeable and badly behaved for almost the whole book, learns life still holds love and value for her despite her age, starts to look ahead and not back. As they walk away from San Salvatore and the (enchanted?) villa, we hope and pray they take the enchantment with them permanently. We think they do.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

October 11, 2021

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice

By Curtis Sittenfeld

“Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?” Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

Pastiches on Austen novels number into the hundreds in film and literature. They usually range from terrible to not too bad with a few real gems. This one is 4 stars. Would have been 5 but for a too drawn-out tacked-on ending. The book could have been 75 pages shorter. Eligible is a very clever, and funny homage to Pride and Prejudice set 2013. Elizabeth is a 38-year-old journalist, who along with her sister Jane, a mellow, sentimental, kind-hearted yoga instructor whose biological clock is ticking, goes home to her Cincinnati home to make sure her caustic, cynical, but lazy ivory tower father is cared for after his heart attack. God knows, the rest of their family would probably kill him with their incompetency and neglect. Lydia and Kitty still live at home though in their 20’s, supported by what’s left of their inherited money, which Mr. and the shopping-addicted Mrs. Bennet have frittered away over the years. Mr. Bennet’s medical bills have thrown the Bennets to the brink of bankruptcy. The 2 girls are idle, though beautiful and toned due their dedication to CrossFit. They are potty-mouthed and have no filters. Mary is an unpleasant recluse, and working on her 3rd master’s degree, with no thought to getting a real job and becoming self-supporting.
The book parallels the original as well as it possibly could, although does get off track towards the end. Part of the pleasure of this book was anticipating what Curtis would do with characters and situations that you knew were coming. It mirrors the overall tone and diction of the original as well. When it went astray was when she diverged too far from the Austen story when the family went west to film their parts in the reality series.
Lady Catharine de Bourgh has no relation to Darcy in this one but is a lauded 80-year-old feminist icon, Kathy, whom Elizabeth seeks to interview throughout much of the book. Her character is a surprise. Think Gloria Steinem. Georgy is a Stanford student: sheltered, shy, and anorexic. “Chip” Bingley is a doctor by profession, but seems to gravitate towards reality TV stardom (The Bachelor) as he is really a bit of a dim-bulb. He would rather try to parlay his fame into a medical TV talk show than actually be a doctor. His friend, Darcy, is an old-money renowned San Francisco surgeon in Cincinnati to head a new brain surgery facility. Elizabeth’s long-time toxic (married) boyfriend of 25 years is Jasper Witt, whose dirty secrets are ultimately exposed by his fellow Stanford schoolmate, Darcy. Everyone is there, plus some fresh new characters, but with a modern spin. They are so well-realized, and sometimes so out of the box and witty, that the book actually gives fresh insights into Austen’s original characters. Some plot and character threads proceed as expected, some take some unlooked-for twists and turns. By the end, Elizabeth sorts out her family’s financial problems and all of the sisters are happily pared off and standing on their own two feet, including Mary. Except she prefers bowling to romance.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

June 23, 2016

Caroline Bingley: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

It ought to be so simple. The titled were wealthy, and the poor were poor. That is how it used to be, but now trade and title were blurring, a most confounding condition. Caroline sighed. She simply could not understand the way of the world.

In this better than average spin-off to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Caroline Bingley retreats to her mother’s home to lick her wounds and strategize how to return to the Darcy/Pemberley circle without apologizing to Elizabeth Bennett. It was brave to take on Caroline Bingley rather than the usual siblings of Elizabeth and Darcy. It keeps her snobbish character intact while making her a little more relatable and her mean-girl actions foiling Jane’s romance with Charles Bingley a little more understandable. A.) She loves her mother. B.) Her family comes from middle-class roots. Her father made his fortune “in Trade” and she lives in fear of being looked down on and excluded because of that.

The writing was competent. Although, and this seems picky, the author seemed to really really like the word “smirk”. It was distracting. Caroline’s motivation for trying to make a noble marriage in order to still have access to Pemberley made no sense. Why Should Darcy and Elizabeth or her brother care whom she married after being understandably cut from their society? Darcy had already demonstrated his democratic nature by marrying Elizabeth and his friendship with her own brother. Given the Author’s background and qualifications, I expected better.

I do give Jennifer Becton credit for exploring the unjust way women were treated and making the slow changes in society and the rise of the middle-class part important themes in her novel. It was entertaining. I did enjoy her relationships and interactions with Lavinia, the love interest, Rosemary, and her family. I was glad that she brought in Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, and Charles in a believable way. But Ooh, that title.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

May 17, 2019

Lucy Carmichael

By Margaret Kennedy

Who would have thought small town and academic politics could be so interesting? Our heroine retreats from society to a small unimportant little institute for the arts far away from her home. She is escaping the pity of friends and strangers upon being left at the altar. She is devastated and depressed. How she finds her way back to being her charming charismatic self is the thrust of the novel. Along the way, she grows attached to her colleagues and acquaintances, as do we. They are ordinary people with full helpings of both good and bad, strengths and weaknesses. Surely even the most ordinary-seeming of people would become extra-ordinary if observed by a writer such as Ms Kennedy. Unexpected things happen in unexpected ways. One of the things I liked best about the book, besides character studies and developments was that the plot did not advance down a lazy and predictable tried and true path. The ending was excellent. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

May 17, 2017

Big Summer

By Jennifer Weiner

Drue opened the door, then surprised me by hugging me hard. “This was the best day of my life,” she said….

“I’m glad Drue got to come.” My father’s head was buried in the refrigerator. I couldn’t see his expression as he said, “I think she was hungry.” As if, I thought. “They have a chef who makes them anything they want.” “So you’ve mentioned.”

.… I went to my bedroom to work on the watercolor I’d been painting for my mother’s birthday and to think about my friend and how there were things you could be hungry for besides food.

Besides being a juicy chick-lit containing the usual themes exploring career, family, romance, personal growth, overcoming challenges, and a nemesis or two, this book is also a murder mystery. It also has a lot of lessons to teach. The one that stood out to me was how important good loving parents and family are. You may not be rich, blue-blooded, or thin and beautiful, but if you have a good family, you are truly blessed.

There are many lessons the two young women, Daphne and Drue, the used and the user, learn in their journeys. One ends happily but the other learns too late. And that part was very sad.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

June 30, 2020