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ReaderMarija's Reviews

...a pot luck of thoughts and reflections

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Rosemary Edmonds, Leo Tolstoy
Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie (Vintage Original)
Nancy Mitford
Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Early Writings
Christine Alexander, Patrick Branwell Brontë, Anne Brontë, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë
The Outward Room - Millen Brand, Peter Cameron

It is surprising that Millen Brand’s novel has fallen into relative obscurity. When I first came across this title and read the novel’s synopsis on the back cover, I was immediately reminded of a film starring Carroll Baker, Something Wild. When comparing the two stories, it’s easy to note the similarities between Brand’s 1937 novel and the 1961 film: a girl who experiences a shocking tragedy suffers from a nervous breakdown; she later runs away lost and alone, and in a moment of utter despair is “saved” by a mechanic who takes her in despite not immediately knowing what had happened to her. This is where the similarities end; the tragedies both girls face are markedly different, as is the way the girls resolve their conflicts and reach a state of acceptance. 


Brand’s novel is a sad, speculative tale that immediately engages the reader. The tone reflects the quiet confusion that is felt by the novel’s protagonist, Harriet. Circumstances have left her feeling cast adrift, overwhelming her with a sense of aloneness. She feels she has no real purpose in life or society; she lacks that important something that will ground her sense of place…a feeling of kinship, trust and home. Even though she does find a supportive partner, the novel quickly makes it apparent that her emotional quest is one that can only be made by herself, alone. 


I particularly enjoyed how the author includes subtle details that inherently chip away at Harriet’s internal conflict. The setting details—the families living in and around the tenement, the children’s voices full of play and excitement, the merry-go-round mounted on the back of an automobile, the hurdy-gurdy music, the sounds of movement, laughter, anger and tears—all create a sense of place within a certain space. The place is busy and chaotic, yet it’s brimming with activity and life. The same holds true for the other places Harriet frequents from her work at the dressmakers, to Anna’s family apartment. Though it is apparent that these elements do lead to some changes in Harriet, she still faces a struggle that only comes to a head at the novel’s closing pages. 


The ending might feel abrupt to some readers; however I think it’s fitting. The abruptness provides the reader with a tangible sense of Harriet’s moment of catharsis. It’s a study of contrasts…frustration and encouragement, despair and hope, worry and contentment. Ultimately, the conclusion provided here offers more to the story that a more conventional ending would have.

A Spy's Devotion (The Regency Spies of London) - Melanie Dickerson

The initial pages of Dickerson’s novel offer the reader a promising beginning, immersing the reader into a story brimming with mystery and espionage. Unfortunately this promise is short lived due to the plot’s shift in focus from mystery to romance. As a result of this shift, many plot lines that are initially introduced are suddenly dropped or are hastily concluded because of the emphasis on various relationship pairings that occur throughout the rest of the novel. As the novel concludes, the reader is left with many questions that are left unanswered. For example, the origins and source of Edgerton and Wilhern’s friendship, the source of Mr. and Mrs. Wilhern’s abhorrence and resentment of Julia, the fate of Garrison Greenfield, the plausibility of a twenty-four year old Eton College student, etc. A discerning reader could potentially speculate the answers based upon the crumbs of information offered. However the fact such prominent storylines are seemingly dropped for no significant reason, leads the reader to question, “How could this have happened?”


Forgiving readers could potentially overlook these plot inconsistencies if the story’s main characters could garner the reader’s sympathetic interest. In Dickerson’s novel this is not so simple, since the dialogue can have a negative impact on the reader’s first impressions of the story’s main characters. At the outset, Julia is seemingly portrayed as an intelligent, resolute and independent young woman, especially when paired with her sensitive, frivolous, and simpering cousin Phoebe. However once Julia speaks, it is immediately apparent that her conversation lacks substance and maturity, an understanding that is made further apparent by the cloying, effervescent wording of her first letter to Nicholas. As one scene builds upon the next, the distinction between Julia and Phoebe is not as clearly defined by the novel’s end. 


Upon reflection, the other characters in this story don’t fair much better either. All of the characters’ emotional development is hindered by the romance plot, including the fallen woman story. The progression of the romance plot does a major disservice to this particular storyline. Instead of being depicted as someone who is taken advantage of due to her lonely state, the fallen woman is portrayed as being fickle in her relationship attachments, and thereby lacks sound character judgement. Her correspondence only corroborates this interpretation of her story, since she readily confesses that her romantic attachments were based upon the superficial “love at first sight.” 


Initial impressions of the novel could seemingly lead the reader to identify A Spy’s Devotion as a satire of the romance genre. However I do not believe this was the author’s true intent. I don’t think the novel will positively engage a discerning reader; such readers would fair better with reading Georgette Heyer’s regency romance/mystery novels. Readers pursuing other novels by Dickerson would probably fair better by sticking with her fairytale retellings.


Copy provided by NetGalley

You Were Here - Cori McCarthy

What initially attracted me to this novel was the fact that it described accounts of urban exploration. From an artistic and architectural point of view, I think urban exploration is a fascinating and intriguing albeit dangerous sport; and I was truly interested in seeing how its highly sensorial elements could be portrayed in written form. 


Perhaps due to the fact that the novel was written for a young adult audience, the descriptions of the characters’ urban explorations are minimal. In truth, the characters’ meetings could easily have taken place in a park, an empty lot, or even under a highway underpass. McCarthy’s novel only provides the reader with the barest skeletal description of the abandoned places the characters visit. The author’s descriptions of the art and architecture of the various settings are blank and dull, and can easily dissuade young readers from attempting their own adventures to abandoned urban sites.


McCarthy’s focus is instead on character and relationships. All of the internal and external conflicts that affect the novel’s five main characters stem from a common cause: avoidance. The characters’ decisions to avoid topics of conflict add constant strain and tension that negatively impacts the level of trust that exists amongst them, including their own ability to trust themselves. The conflicts develop important questions concerning loyalty, friendship, self-knowledge and self-worth—qualities that are essential for one’s own sense of identity and for building and maintaining successful relationships with others. 


The characters are portrayed in a realistic way, though their respective conflicts don’t make for a comfortable read. At times, the characters can be insufferably oppressive and their attempts at moving on from various ugly revelations aren’t entirely healthy…another form of avoidance. A reader might hope for a feeling of positive change at the novel’s conclusion, but I don’t necessarily feel that all of the characters are emotionally ready for that to happen by the novel’s closing pages. Their relationships are still in a tentative state; and futures are as yet undecided. Ultimately, I think the way McCarthy ends this story is an asset to her attempts at depicting a realistic portrayal of teenage conflict. 


What doesn’t work is McCarthy’s use of the split narrative. McCarthy continues the growing trend in young adult literature of writing in different narrative styles, mixing first person and third person narratives with graphic novel scenes and photographs of poetic artwork. Rather than adding a personal element to each of the five characters’ stories, the split narrative creates distance and even arguably ranks the characters’ importance to the story, based upon the frequency and length of their chapter contributions. Given the fact that all of the characters share the same conflicts, each should have had an equal presence in telling their respective stories within the main tale. 


Additionally, the use of split narrative does a disservice to the characters’ voices. At times, it can be difficult to distinguish between Natalie and Zach’s chapters, which are written in third person, especially after revisiting the story mid-chapter from a reading break.


Though McCarthy’s novel does provide some important and relevant insights for readers both young and old, it does have elements that might detract some readers from finding the novel a truly satisfying read.


Copy provided by NetGalley

Rilla of Ingleside - L.M. Montgomery

Though commendable for exposing children to the effects of war upon families within a small town, the novel reads like wartime propaganda. Even though Montgomery hints at a character’s fate in her earlier novels, the way it is achieved is rather idealistic and unnatural. This “ending” can be rather disappointing for a modern reader who has been exposed to many examples of realistic portrayals of the effects of World War I upon individuals and families. As well, the constant reinforcement of how the character’s fate is achieved is unrealistic as well, given the circumstances. 


Also, the romantic elements of the story pale in comparison to the development of Anne and Gilbert’s relationship in the preceding novels. Like many wartime romances, the romance here somehow spontaneously manifests itself. While this inclusion is warranted, a few looks and brief exchanges over a handful of meetings and letters is simply not enough to convey to the reader a true meeting of kindred spirits.

Into the Dim - Janet B. Taylor

Into the Dim opens with an intriguing mystery that readily captures the reader’s interest. Among the characters the reader’s initially introduced, it’s only the protagonist, Hope, who holds fast to the belief of solving it. A visit to an estranged aunt in Scotland unwittingly places Hope into a position to gain the answers she’s long sought, and even lead her to a few revelations that she little expected or even dreamed were possible.


Time travel and interactions with the past can make for an exciting and intriguing read. However here, the drama and mystery that is introduced quickly falls away into campy cartoonish action. When reading the interactions that take place amongst the adult and teenage characters, it is rather difficult to identify a mature voice—a voice of reason. The dialogue makes the various arguments that arise seem quite naive and even theatrical. This is especially true for the story’s antagonists.


Taylor also tends to overuse the “‘I need to tell you something important!” […] ‘Not now!’” interaction with her characters. Though it is meant to provide comic relief, it cuts the drama in the extreme. Moments where time is of the essence are drawn out with silly, unnecessary conversation and inaction, while instances where there is time to speak and divulge secrets are full of missed opportunities.


Yet though it might seem that this novel solely focuses on levity, the novel also describes situations that might be more appropriate for mature readers, namely attempted rape and descriptions of physical abuse. Into the Dim is a novel best suited for readers seeking comical fantasy entertainment. Those seeking a new twist to a more traditional historical novel with drama and intrigue might find this novel somewhat disappointing.


Copy provided by NetGalley

The Return of the Soldier - Verlyn Klinkenborg, Rebecca West, Norman Price

Lost chances and missed opportunities, resignation, change, war, suppression and oppression are among the themes surrounding West’s novel. For such a short novel, it is heavy. The heaviness is pervasive and there is no sense of reprieve for any of the characters. The novel’s narrator does begin her story almost with an apology…things aren’t as they seem…the people you’ll meet will not be in their best form. What unfolds is a highly depressing tale for our protagonist Chris. Though he once found happiness in his youth, he let it fall away in a sudden moment of angry frustration. The life he currently has with his wife is likewise frustrating…a wife of cold, statuesque beauty who has turned his home into a modern palace. When reading, one might readily notice elements that Daphne du Maurier would later develop in her novel Rebecca


The effects of war have left Chris in shell shocked repressed state. But even in this state, he’s unhappy and unsatisfied. Though he is given the opportunity to rekindle his friendship with his lost first love, Margaret, there is still an underlying unhappiness and unrest. Though initially Margaret does seem to be a voice of reason, this feeling is soon lost when she’s left to make fanciful, mystical notions about the children they both lost in the new relationships they had forged.


Once Chris “awakens” from his repressed fog, he is left with only one course to take—a course that is seemingly no better than any of the others with which he has faced. West’s novel is about loneliness and aloneness met in various states.

The Boy Most Likely To - Huntley Fitzpatrick

When I first learned Ms. Fitzpatrick was penning a sequel to My Life Next Door written from the point of view of Tim Mason, I was truly excited. My Life Next Door ends with many themes that could be further explored: Tim’s sobriety, his relationship with his troubled sister, parental issues, as well as his growing attraction towards Alice. 


In The Boy Most Likely To, the reader is introduced to a new source of conflict for Tim, one that unfortunately tests the boundaries of plausibility and even practicality. This new Hester/baby addition should have easily been solved in a matter of days, especially when Tim’s parents became involved, considering all of the expenses lost on lawyer’s fees and the like. This storyline is meant to demonstrate Tim’s willingness to change and adapt, tangible proof of his growing maturity. However, the fact that he does not immediately question the story he is told, and obtain proof of its validity arguably undermines this potential growth.


 Also since this storyline is the main focus of the novel, all of those other important themes and conflicts that were previously introduced become lost in the shuffle. Although Fitzpatrick does ultimately address them, their resolutions are seemingly insufficient given the depth of those problems, especially the issues his sister is facing. There are a lot of unfinished questions there, enough for a potential sequel. 


Though it pains me to say this, The Boy Most Likely To is not among Huntley Fitzpatrick’s best work.

Matt's Story: A Night We Said Yes Novella - Lauren Gibaldi

While a reader might select this story after reading The Night We Said Yes with the expectation of obtaining further insights into Matt’s character, the revelations provided are somewhat muted. When reading The Night We Said Yes, Matt seems a rather aloof and distant character. Through his interactions with Ella, it is apparent that he has difficulty in communicating his thoughts and feelings. “Matt’s Story” shows the reader the depth of this awkward aloofness. Again the author plays with the idea of truth or dare. Though it is a game he is willing to play, Matt is unwilling to apply it to his own life circumstances. As a result, Matt is passive throughout and willingly lets circumstances take control. In a way, this allows the reader to question the veracity of his feelings towards others. 


Unfortunately, as with The Night We Said Yes, the timeline of this story affects the conflicts that occur. Matt’s external conflicts with his friends, as well as his brother are muted as a result of the various shifts in time. The reader doesn’t get to experience these important relationship developments, though we’re told they’ve occurred. Arguably, this also can negatively impact Matt’s moment of catharsis and internal self-revelation, which should have been such a momentous moment for him and for the reader. 


That said, this is a short story. Through this medium, it achieves what it set out to do, namely, provide the reader with further insights into what took place during Matt’s six month disappearance, and what led him to the course of action he takes in The Night We Said Yes.

The Night We Said Yes - Lauren Gibaldi

The Night We Said Yes tells a story about loss and second chances, personal fears and the courage needed to face them. Essentially, the story describes two nights—one past, one present—that are especially salient to the two main characters, Matt and Ella. Two meetings—one that’s full of shyness, hope and happiness, the other wrought with tension and strain, even though there is the potential hope of change. The author plays with the idea of “truth or dare” — a game the main characters play over the course of the novel. When faced with the truth, does one have enough courage to dare try again? In order for this to be successful, trust is needed. The story essentially attempts to chronicle the building and rebuilding of this trust between Matt and Ella. 


As the story progresses, the reader can see that both are culpable for the problems that have arisen in their friendship over the year in which these meetings occur. Though it’s apparent Matt and Ella have chemistry, they’re also uncomfortable with each other. Both try to mask it, which only leads to further problems, increasing the lack of trust that exists between them. 


Though I enjoyed parts of this story, I don’t feel the choice of timeframe is conducive to the weighty decision-making the characters face. While it does work for the story set in the past, Matt and Ella’s initial meeting, the present day story would have been better told over the course of a few days or weeks. There is too much happening over the course of this one night—too many revelations and emotional changes for any meaningful decision making to occur. The sudden changes in Ella’s reactions to the situations in which she’s placed make her seem somewhat flippant and immature. This feeling is only heightened by various little contradictory comments and internal musings that are made throughout the story, not just about herself, but with her relationship with Matt and her best friend as well. Unfortunately, this can detract from the optimistic feeling the reader should be able to derive from the book’s final pages. Is Ella’s final choice solely based upon a new dare rather than one based upon an understanding of truth and trust? 


Ross Poldark - Winston Graham

When reading this novel, it is easy to understand why it was adapted twice for the screen. The storytelling is highly entertaining and fast paced, and is supported by a fine cast of characters. I love grouchy, crusty characters and Jud Painter with his “wife” Prudie are among the best I have encountered. 


Though the novel takes place over the course of four years, the time isn’t dragged out. It flies by, though many changes have occurred that mark its passage. The most recognizable happens to Demelza, who’ s only thirteen at the novels outset. Graham has portrayed her well in this novel, especially in regards to her relationship with Ross. Their relationship is a natural and gradual progression, one that’s respectful to her age and place within his household over those four years. 


In regards to Ross, one aspect of his character that’s most prominent is a certain dislike to leave unfinished business. This holds true to all aspects of his life, and I think it is what mainly supports his feelings for Elizabeth. It’s not so much love that drives his thoughts about her, but his inability to see the relationship through to its natural end.


Like Ross, his cousin Verity has also experienced loss, and the passage of time has not lessened it. There is a common thread of stubbornness that runs through the Poldarks, yet the reader is not repelled by it. On the contrary, Graham expertly uses it to draw in the reader’s sympathy for these characters, even when the reader shouldn’t. The protagonists and antagonists are equally intriguing and their various conflicts only make the reader want to read more.

Saint Anything - Sarah Dessen

Faithful readers of Sarah Dessen will find this novel a marked contrast to her previous works. While Dessen doesn’t shy away from weighty topics, such as physical and verbal abuse and drug use, this book manages to have a darker, graver tone, even though the protagonist isn't the main contributor. The book’s opening scene is a courtroom sentencing. And though the reader isn't immediately informed of the crime, nor the extent of the defendant’s punishment, the reader does experience the sinking fear and even embarrassment felt by the protagonist when watching the outcome of her brother’s crime. The book itself chronicles how Sydney’s family copes with the aftermath…how her father buries himself in his work, how her mother becomes obsessively and oppressively involved in her son’s life in prison, and how Sydney’s brother’s best friend ingratiates himself even more into their lives. 


It wouldn’t be a Dessen novel unless there was a potential love interest for the main character. This inclusion is needed to help lighten the mood of the novel’s underlying dark tone. Essentially, Mac and his family provide some form of guidance and respite for Sydney during this time of hardship and personal crisis—support she is not getting at home. Dessen’s clever in not portraying Sydney as someone infallible; and through her, the reader does gain some sense of understanding of how sudden choices and decisions can mushroom into something worse, potentially providing some insight into what drove her brother to make those fateful decisions. There are many conflicts in this book, and I like the fact that the reader is shown active interactions between adults and teens that lead to conclusive resolutions, unlike some of Dessen’s previous books. 


As a side note, I wish it was part of Dessen’s style to write from the point of view of a male protagonist. An interesting and compelling story could be made about Sydney’s brother Peyton. As with the character Jason Talbot who briefly appears in several of Dessen’s other novels, there is a lot of potential for character development here. I think both of these characters would make for creative, noteworthy spin-off stories.

Cecilia - Fanny Burney, Margaret Anne Doody, Peter Sabor

My first thoughts upon completing Cecilia were centered on the fact of its thematic relevancy for a modern audience. It’s a story that could easily play out today on the screen: A young girl gains an inheritance and is thrust into high society with little to no guidance but her own innocent good heart. One can readily imagine what will happen to her and her fortune. The constant emotional and financial demands placed upon this heroine do in fact take their toll. Though there is a happy ending, the reader can’t help but question the degree of true happiness felt by all of the principal characters met with over the course of the novel. Though one may strive to be steadfast in thought and purpose to serve and protect those most loved, it can be extremely difficult to not let petty jealousies and prejudices impact this initial purpose, especially when they pose a threat to one’s own sense of pride. Because of this the prize of love given within those final few chapters arguably feels more like a consolation prize.


I thoroughly enjoyed the style of Burney’s novel. Though it mainly chronicles Cecilia’s story, there are many little stories and vignettes interspersed throughout that are very good—some comedic and entertaining, others with a somber, tragic theme. The story’s pacing is quick and highly visual. The serial, episodic nature of the storytelling can be readily viewed as a precursor to the style Dickens adopted in his own writing.

A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute

This was not a new story for me, having previously watched both the Peter Finch/Virginia McKenna and Brian Brown/Helen Morse film versions when I was a young girl. Yet I found it interesting how perceptions change as one gets older. When revisiting a known work either through re-reading or by comparing a book to its film, one tends to notice additional elements that might have been previously missed in the initial reading or viewing. 


For example, the more recent Brian Brown film version, retains the narration of Jean Paget’s lawyer, Noel Strachan. As a young girl watching the film, I disregarded the romanticized elements of Noel’s narration, which is readily apparent when reading through Shute’s novel. No matter the harsh conditions Jean faces throughout her story, she still makes a striking presence through her quiet strength and beauty. Shute manages Noel’s narration well. Whatever romantic sentiments that Noel hints at over the course of the novel are tastefully done, and never leave the reader feeling burdened with scenes of unnecessary and potentially awkward romantic interactions. Unlike Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, the reader never develops the sense that Noel has an obsession filled with self-loathing and loneliness. Instead, Noel has a quiet wistfulness that does not impede his role as the kind and attentive confidant and friend n his various interactions with Jean. 


Joe Harman’s characterization is rather interesting. When comparing Jean to Joe, Jean is arguably the stronger of the two in regards to personal growth and adaptability, even though both are survivors. Though Jean has a kind of internal social awkwardness amongst her peers, Joe’s awkwardness tends to manifest outwardly whenever he is outside of his native outback. Yet as Noel himself notes, as a couple, both will support each other well. Their relationship pairs well with the sense of Willstown’s own continued growth into a town that’s like Alice. 


All in all, A Town Like Alice is an excellent tale of war, adventure, romance and growth. The story is supported by its strong, visual narration, which translates well to film. 

The Complete Novelettes of Honore de Balzac in One Volume - Honoré de Balzac

"A Passion in the Desert"- When I began this project, rather than starting with something new, I decided to turn to an old favorite. This was the first story of Balzac’s that I ever read; and it perfectly demonstrates the versatility of this writer. It is a story told in retrospect—an old soldier recounting his experiences as a prisoner of war during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. Balzac has the gift of transforming the most mundane description into something that stirs the senses of the reader. His writing is completely sensual. As a reader, you feel everything that this soldier experiences—the heat, the desolation of being alone in the desert, the joy of finding the oasis, and his sudden fear at discovering that he’s trespassing on claimed territory. What next ensues is a pas de deux between man and beast. The imagery Balzac provides is intriguing. There is certain danger at every move, yet underneath the surface, there’s soul as well. For those who’ve never before read Balzac, it is a good introduction.

At the Sign of the Cat and Racket - This story deals more explicitly with a theme that is suggested in A Second Home. It is a cautionary tale regarding societal class structures, and how, despite the best intentions, difficulties can, and probably will ensue when social boundaries are crossed. As in many of Balzac’s tales, innocence becomes corrupted—in this case, the relationship between a cultured artist and his muse, daughter of a draper and financier. Initially, it is a love match. However, when notoriety and fame for artistic achievement is realized, one cannot live the life of a hermit. To receive patronage, an artist must mingle with society. But for a young girl who has little experience with the social mores of the high life, such an existence can be difficult. Change is expected, but will this change be accepted? Balzac plays with this concept, and illustrates how this can help and/or hurt a marriage. It’s an interesting study.

The Sceaux Ball - Balzac has a wicked sense of humor. His use of irony in this cautionary tale is absolutely wonderful. He masterfully contrasts images to enhance the dialogue of his characters, which helps him slowly build up to his final moral for his readers. The final image of Émilie regarding those contrasting figures of the Vice-Admiral and Maximilien—figures that have become a fixed part of her existence is one of the best I have ever read.

The Vendetta - Balzac tries his hand at writing tragedy and masterfully succeeds! His story is beautifully executed. The images and emotions Balzac creates throughout are so vivid that they continue to linger well after the story concludes. As I close my eyes now, I can still picture in clear detail everything described. At its heart, this story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet—children becoming victims of their parents’ strife. Yet Balzac makes the story entirely his own, by creating a strong and innocent female protagonist in the form of Ginevra, who is willing to sacrifice all for truth and love. In this story, Balzac actually gives his characters heart, which is a nice reprieve from all of his other merciless tales. With this story, Balzac can be placed along side of Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Emile Zola as being among the best writers of tragedy. 

A Second Home - The first few pages of this story are riveting. The reader is immediately drawn into this world Balzac creates, watching and feeling everything taking place—the young seamstress and her mother working themselves to the bone; the miserable young man walking past them every night; shared glances between the man and girl that speak volumes; little acts of kindness that show a blossoming romance. Everything is so acutely detailed; it’s like watching a film. But of course trouble looms, and its revelation forces a complete change in the storytelling. The reader is shockingly thrown into a new scene with minimalistic detail. The characters that do appear are mere shadowy silhouettes compared to how they were initially described in those first pages. Balzac forces the reader to put together the various pieces he provides. At first, I found the change strange and surprising, almost wondering if Balzac really finished this story. Yet, this change perfectly complements the shocking revelation that happens at the story’s climax. Balzac’s perfectly designed mise-en-scène fractures like glass, with Bianchon, Balzac’s ever present ministering angel, left to pick up the pieces. This story is truly well done.

The Imaginary Mistress - This tale appeals to the child within all of us. Here, Balzac shows nostalgia for the past. This is a modern Romantic tale...a tale of courtly love with a knight figure vowing eternal fidelity towards his beloved. It’s a bittersweet story, though it does leave the reader with a good feeling at the end, which is rather rare for Balzac. It also serves as a good introduction to many of Balzac’s Parisian figures of society, namely, Madame de Sérisy, Maxime de Trailles, Diane de Maufrigneuse, and the Marquis de Ronquerolles.

Honorine - This is a very strange and twisted tale. I fail to see any loving or redeeming qualities in Honorine; and for the life of me, I can’t understand why these men loved her. Their attraction must be purely pheromonal, since she is totally lacking in personality. Her reasoning and sense of right is extremely flawed. But what really killed this story for me was her ultimate “sacrifice.” Her giving in to duty evokes no sympathy from the reader; in effect, it makes her all the more disagreeable. Yet, I suppose one could say that something good does result from it. Yet, this element of “good” is at the moment intangible, i.e. its basis is a future hope—not something that can heal the wounds of the present and past.

Gobseck - This tale is essentially a sequel to Balzac’s novel, Père Goriot, focusing on the married life of Goriot’s daughter, Anastasie de Restaud. It is a painfully uncomfortable story to read, leaving the reader feeling emotionally bitter from the savageness depicted. Here, Balzac demonstrates the extreme lengths that a narcissistic Parisian woman of society will go to in order to save herself and have it all, at the expense of her husband, lover, and children. Actually, the various games and deceptions played in this tale are rather fascinating to witness. It’s truly amazing no one really recognizes the obvious truth of their situations. All in all, though it makes for a good study, it left me feeling cold. 

Colonel Chabert - This story forces the reader to recognize the clash between the old societal values with the new modern post-Napoleonic France. Poor Colonel Chabert is figuratively reborn and thrown mercilessly into the center of this new and now unfamiliar world. Honor and valor no longer matter in a world steeped in the mire of want and greed, a world where even good deeds are accepted with suspicion. However, mourning and remembrance of things past are not the themes of this tale. Over time, strategies of war do change, and the good soldier must learn how to adapt in order to fight the ruthlessness of, in this case, the modern age.

A Commission in Lunacy - Again Balzac takes the narcissistic Parisian woman and provides another study of how they attempt to destroy the man or men with whom they are involved. However here, the Marquise d’Espard meets a formidable adversary in the guise of M. Popinot. There are some good interactions amongst the characters in this story. As well, unlike the story Gobseck, there is some recognition of the truth here that is not masked by sensationalistic portrayals. Yet though the outlook might seem to be leading towards a favorable conclusion, it is highly unlikely for all of the principal characters in Balzac’s stories to be left fully unscathed. 

A Forsaken Lady - This is one of those “sensational” tales of love, sacrifice and heartache. The proverb, “You can’t have your cake and eat it” aptly describes the premise of this tale. The main characters—Madame de Beauséant and Gaston de Nueil must realize that pleasure comes with a price, especially for the man of society who must meet the expectations of his family and the world. Unfortunately, circumstances force the main character, Gaston, to choose his fate. However, his choice has far greater emotional ramifications than he would’ve expected. When paired with the pure innocence described in The Vendetta, the lovers of this story represent a more stark and materialistic, albeit realistic, view of love. That said, it is not one of Balzac’s best in my opinion. 

The Firm of Nucingen - Balzac is clinically precise in his depictions of the various elements working in society. Here, he depicts how marriage is a business for profit, though not necessarily for the immediate parties involved. Rastignac and Nucingen are profiteers, tricking various society “innocents” through false investments, whose only return leads to a profit for the firm. In some respects, this story’s character of Baron de Nuncingen prefigures Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte in The Way We Live Now

A Princess’s Secrets - Life is “so” difficult for a 19th century Parisian lady of society who has been unfortunate enough to reach her mid-thirties, and who also happens to have a fairly grown up child. Such a woman, like Diane de Maufrigneuse, would look foolish trying to continue passing for a married twenty year old “virginal” coquette. Actually this story serves as a good introduction to illustrate the narcissistic strength of Balzac’s Parisian woman and the ultimate powerlessness of the man or men within her grasp. There’s a sneaking cruelty to every move such a woman makes. And it is quite shocking the lengths a woman like this will resort to, to satisfy her whims.

The Unconscious Mummers - This is a tale that illustrates the conflict between rural innocence vs. urban corruption and manipulation. It is a fairly disturbing tale, since the reader in a way can foreshadow the outcome. Balzac describes the perfect situation...everyone so friendly and nice; everything so perfect and pristine.... It stands to reason that there must be something ugly festering underneath this lush façade. Through his conclusion, Balzac succeeds at instilling in his reader, the same emotional impact that is felt by his main character, Gazonal.

The Girl with Golden Eyes - Whoever arranged the nouvelles in my collection, certainly didn’t want to have the reader start on a whimper. Apart from Zola’s Pot-Bouille, this story, dedicated to Delacroix, is one of the bawdiest I have ever read. It is definitely a story written for a man. Essentially, it’s about a woman in love with a particular face—in all of its various forms. Love is transformed into an art form, down to the minutest detail. But what I particularly liked was that like a painting, not everything that is depicted is readily spelled out. There is some symbolism embedded as well. Overall, though finding Balzac’s story interesting, I do think it was a bit too salacious.

Melmoth Reconciled - Like his novel, Le Peau de Chagrin, Balzac delves into the mystical and supernatural with this tale. It takes on the Faustian theme: the devil making bids for the souls of various men because of their past crimes, their intent to commit crimes, or for a simple desire to buy a gift—the common thread being man’s want of money. In each case, the devil spirit corrupts its host, body and soul, leaving behind an unrecognizable shell. The story shares themes with Oscar Wilde’s later novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. One would think the tone of this tale would be morose, full of doom and gloom, but it isn’t. The power of this story’s corrupt supernatural spirit is seemingly finite. Even though there is a tragic end, there is a glimmering sense of hope in this battle of good and evil.

Gambara - Balzac takes on the theme of the mad genius in this tale of a composer named Gambara, who is unable to be accepted by society. Gambara’s genius is overwhelming. His grand oeuvre, an operatic composition on the life of Mohammad, is so technically detailed that even if the reader has some musical background, as I have, it is easy to become swept up and drowned by the descriptions. This story is not for casual reading; it requires careful attention to be fully understood and enjoyed. Yet the composition of this tale is remarkably balanced. Balzac complements the technical aspects of the tale with a bawdy romance, complete with lustful eyes and salacious yearnings that will surely come to a bad end. All in all, it is a rather good tragicomedy.

Massamilla Doni - Balzac here tries his hand at writing a story with a happy ending, though I don’t think it is as strong and successful as some of his other tales. It seems to satirize the idea of platonic love between a man and a woman. Friendship leads to idealization, which in turn causes only suffering for both parties; since desire takes on the form of something corrupt and sordid, and thus becomes unattainable. Some really silly hijinks ensue, leading towards a ridiculous conclusion. The only enjoyable character was Vendramin, who has some of the same intense, fatalistic, self-pitying characteristics of Dickens’ Sydney Carton.

Farewell - This nouvelle describes forbidden love during Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Through terrible hardships and loss, love is unexpectedly found again. But is it possible to overcome the past to secure reconciliation and happiness in the future? The title itself might seem to immediately answer this question, but Balzac answers it in a way the reader wouldn’t expect. This is a story that gets under your skin and stays with you; it is truly well done.

The Maranas - A girl with a secret, unknown past is paired with two soldiers, one beautifully handsome; the other, plain and ordinary. With such a pairing, the only likely conclusion is trouble. The green-eyed monster of jealousy runs rampant throughout, felt not just by one character, but by all. Here, jealousy leads to greed and covetousness. Montefiore desires the beautiful Juana as a greedy obsession...a man purely interested in the chase to add another notch in his belt. Diard loves purely, though circumstance drives him to blind jealousy and hate. This leads him to covet what he considers by rights should be his own. I liked how Balzac describes Diard with sympathy...a man who is handed a bad deal in life. The characterization of both men is simple; it’s the situation that becomes complex for them. However, Balzac’s characterization of Juana is completely different. Her character is complex and not entirely sympathetic. There’s an essence of the character Honorine in her...that same obstinate sense of duty. For Juana, her choices are complicated by her “nature,” i.e. the faults of her lineage—something which at the beginning of the tale, she knows nothing about. In a way, she is partly the cause of Diard’s fall. She knows that she’s wrong, but she can’t help the way she feels and acts. But when it comes to blame; she refuses to blame herself. Her final act, seemingly places the blame onto another...a final act of jealous retribution. All told, it is a strange tale.

Maître Cornélius - Balzac disperses with the setting of modern Paris to write an historical mystery set during the reign of Louis XI. It is certainly a change of pace from Balzac’s typical faire, but it is intriguing and best of all, fun. It’s one of the busiest stories of his that I’ve read. There’s a troubled marriage, forbidden love, crusty characters, characters incognito, stolen treasure, death and a King who plays detective. The ending is wonderfully ironical, though it plays with a metaphysical theme one does find in the literature of this period.

About Catherine de Medici - As in Maître Cornélius, Balzac sets his story in the past, this time chronicling the life and times of Catherine de Médici. It’s full of petty jealousies, love gone awry, political intrigue, as well as mysticism and soothsayers. And for added flare, one of Balzac’s ancestors makes a guest appearance. For an historical tale, it is well balanced. And on the whole, the historical elements work well with this story. The focus seems to be on Catherine’s strengths and/or weaknesses...that struggle for power and knowledge and the need to control...not only the lives of her children, but time itself. She is fixated upon this desire to know, but to be so dependent upon this need, seems almost detrimental to her struggle for control. Though she does manage to affect the lives of those around her, Balzac describes her with vulnerable attributes. With this in mind, it is apparent that Balzac underlies his historical tale with a philosophical moral.

The Napoleon of the People - The French title for this story is Le Médicin de Campagne...The Country Doctor, so the title of the edition I read, The Napoleon of the People, might seem somewhat misleading. The Napoleon connection here is meant figuratively, given the nature of our main character, the good Doctor. There are lots of stories within stories in this tale, all serving to represent the Doctor in some way, both literally and figuratively from youth to death. It is cleverly constructed, though it is another departure from his typical subject and style.

Gaudissart the Great - This tale reads as a satirical fable of sorts—a tale of rural swindling and trickery that is not left unpunished. Though here, the punishment is felt both ways, and a kind of camaraderie results based upon a draw in a battle of wits. On the whole, it is a fairly amusing tale.

The Vicar of Tours - Here, Balzac takes on corruption within the Catholic Church. Abbé Birotteau’s sin is materialistic in nature, i.e. his desire and love for the furniture and library he has inherited upon the death of his predecessor. But when compared to the double dealings and ambitious greed of Birotteau’s landlady, Mme. Gamard and his fellow lodger and rival, Abbe Troubert, it is difficult to begrudge him. After all, he is an ingenuous old man, who only wishes to seek the comforts and security of old age. His innocence resembles that of Colonel Chabert, and like Chabert, Birotteau finds himself beguiled by a corrupt, ambitious world. It is a rather sad tale, one that surprisingly doesn’t take up the religious beliefs of the rewards and punishments promised in the afterlife. Balzac maintains a cool, secular tone throughout.

The Unknown Masterpiece; and, Gambara - Richard Howard, Arthur C. Danto, Honoré de Balzac

The Unknown Masterpiece - Balzac mixes fact with fiction in this tale of a mythical artistic genius named Frenhofer. It is a tale that plays on artistic conventions and the changes of style from past and present...what’s deemed acceptable or objectionable in art. What I found interesting is Balzac’s use of role reversal. Youth and old age are paired, and where one would think that the younger generation would be more accepting of a modern vision; it is the older generation that actually appears the more daring. Balzac juxtaposes the two ideas well.


In regards to Frenhofer’s masterpiece, the reader could interpret it in two ways—either as a failure or a success. Could Frenhofer be a mad genius, an artist whose vision has escaped him...does he see only what he wants to see? Or, could he be viewed as an artist ahead of his times? Both seem to be equally valid arguments and I find either interpretation equally intriguing. As a side note, I wonder if Zola ever read this story, since it shares some of the same themes he incorporated into his later novel, The Masterpiece.


In Gambara, Balzac takes on the theme of the mad genius in this tale of a composer named Gambara, who is unable to be accepted by society. Gambara’s genius is overwhelming. His grand oeuvre, an operatic composition on the life of Mohammad, is so technically detailed that even if the reader has some musical background, as I have, it is easy to become swept up and drowned by the descriptions. This story is not for casual reading; it requires careful attention to be fully understood and enjoyed. Yet the composition of this tale is remarkably balanced. Balzac complements the technical aspects of the tale with a bawdy romance, complete with lustful eyes and salacious yearnings that will surely come to a bad end. All in all, it is a rather good tragicomedy.


The two stories, The Unknown Masterpiece and Gambara, are seemingly well paired, illustrating the frustrations of a mad genius in the expression of his art. That said, the pairing does pull the reader more towards the interpretation of the artist as a failure in the two stories.


Of the two, Gambara is the more dense due to the technical detail of Gambara’s operatic composition, and thus requires more patience to read. However, while Gambara balances comedy and romance with tragedy, The Unknown Masterpiece is purely tragical in tone. Though both are excellent stories on their own, of the two, The Unknown Masterpiece is the more intriguing and offers more possibilities in regards to interpretation.

A Harlot High and Low - Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-1847)

A Harlot High and Low - Honoré de Balzac, Rayner Heppenstall

At first glance, the English translation of the title might seem somewhat of a misnomer. Essentially, this work is a collection of four separate volumes that are essentially loosely joined together through one central theme and figure, i.e. the infamous Jacques Collin and his string of aliases from the priest Carlos Herrera, to Vautrin. Though one might think the “harlot” referenced in the English translation refers to the story’s professional courtesan, Esther Gobseck, this is not a true conclusion. The story is essentially a study of interactions amongst men and women in Parisian society—husbands, wives and lovers. In essence, all daughters of Paris when they fall in love—be they rich or poor—experience and inhabit the highs and lows of the courtesan. Love for these women is likened to an addiction which will eventually reach a crisis stage that threatens to take over reason, leading to ruination, madness or even death. In this crisis stage, the Parisian woman in love can conjure up untold amounts of strength...even ripping out the steel bars of a prison gate! 


The pacing of these four volumes might be a detraction for some readers. In truth, the first two volumes describing the organizational workings of Parisian society read rather slowly. The interweaving of roles are numerous: husbands, wives and their lovers—equally accepting, understanding and supporting; the petty female jealousies felt by opposing friends and lovers vying for attention: old biddies like Diane de Maufrigneuse and Mme de Sérisy trying to recapture their youth by lusting after young virile men, who are engaged to their friends’ virginal daughters, and their plans to establish continued understandings with these male lovers after their marriage. Then, there is the male lover’s attempts at seeking pleasure—not just from his intended wife and older lover—but through the arms of his own established mistress. This web of corrupt intrigue that Balzac painstakingly weaves is phenomenal. It reminded me of Thackeray’s puppet theatre imagery that is the essence of Vanity Fair. Yet none of Balzac’s characters within these four volumes ever realize that they are being manipulated by a master puppeteer—though unlike Thackeray’s own role of “manager,” the role of the master in Balzac’s story is entrusted to the criminal mastermind, Jacques Collin.


It is only within the last two volumes that the reader is fully acquainted with Jacques Collin’s significant role. He is rather reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Frank Abagnale, Jr. in the film, Catch Me If You Can. The scam Jacques Collin has in play is wonderfully complex: the whole of Paris is within his control. It is so much fun to see how he pulls and tests the strengths of his power, fully aware of his own strength and Paris’ weaknesses. Though, Balzac is careful in not allowing him to appear infallible: Jacques Collin does have one weakness in the form of his protégée, Lucien de Rubempré, the protagonist of Lost Illusions. His plan is guided solely for the benefit of Lucien, assuring Lucien’s future happiness within Paris’ financial, political and social web. 


Overall, despite the somewhat dull beginning, Balzac devised a masterful and entertaining conclusion to this 600 page work.