A casual book club meeting: “The Ladies of Missalonghi”

It's here, it's here, time to do some book chatting! Friends and readers, don't fail me now... just speak your mind in the comments and let's see where we go. (If you're looking for prompts, this is for you.)

1. Let's talk about the title, which sets up some very clear and simple boundaries. This book is not concerned with dudes or dude lives or dude problems. It will not be about women or girls.  It won't even be about all of the ladies who reside in the small, mean, vaguely inbred "backwater" town of Byron in the Blue Mountains of Australia. It will be specifically about a type, constricted by both sex and status:

To fill in their empty days the ladies of Missalonghi knitted and tatted and crocheted endlessly, grateful for the gifts of wool and threads and linens that came their way each Christmas and birthday, giving back some of the end results as their gifts in their turn, and stockpiling a great deal more in the spare room.

That they acquiesced so tamely to a code and a regimen inflicted upon them by people who had no idea of the loneliness, the bitter suffering of genteel poverty, was no evidence of lack of spirit or lack of courage. Simply, they were born and lived in a time before the great wars completed the industrial revolution, when paid work and its train of comforts were a treason to their concepts of life, of family, of femininity.

A little on-the-nose editorializing there, but true enough and recognizable still. The ladies of Missalonghi inhabit a world filled with broadly sketched cheaters, backstabbers, and snobs, where no husband = no money and no beauty = no prospects. In circumstances like these, you'd best hitch yourself to a good lie and ride that motherfucker down into the valley. I mean seriously, what have you got to lose?

2. Let's talk about the opening:

"Can you tell me, Octavia, why our luck never seems to change for the better?" asked Mrs. Drusilla Wright of her sister, adding with a sigh, "We need a new roof."

That's the start of a fairytale (you can almost hear "Once upon a time"), but it also outlines the full shape of their misery. What these two ladies long for is practical and useful; what they're accustomed to is disappointment, which they accept as the way things are, have been, and always will be. There's no questioning and no argument; they surrender to their circumstances:

It had been Sir William's policy to distribute his worldly goods among his sons only, leaving his daughters possessed of a dowry consisting of a house on five good acres of land. On the surface it seemed a good policy, discouraging fortune-hunters whilst ensuring the girls the status of landowners as well as a measure of independence. Nothing loath (since it meant more money for them), his sons had continued the policy, and so in their turn had their sons. Only as the decades passed, the houses became steadily less commodious, less well built, and the five good acres of land tended to become five not-so-good acres of land.

The result two generations later was that the Hurlingford connection was divided into several camps; uniformly wealthy males, females who were well off due to fortunate marriages, and a group of females who had either been tricked out of their land, or forced to sell it for less than its real value, or struggled still to subsist upon it, like Drusilla Hurlingford Wright.

Drusilla was my favorite character, btw. I love cranky widows who know more than they tell.

But Missy is the one who fights back.

3. Let's talk about Missy, who seems to come straight out of Cinderella: small, dark, and homely, poor but generous, mild but tough. Easy to overlook. Of course she's a bookworm and a green thumb and a genius with a needle. Of course she does what she's told while breaking small, harmless rules on the side. Ugh. Snoresville.

And yet!

Driven by sheer exhaustion, exasperation, and a false reading of her own symptoms, it turns out she's just as willing to play dirty as the rest of the Hurlingford clan. Eavesdropping at opportune moments? Check. Secret backroom deals with old ladies to reclaim their stolen gold doubloons? Check. Going turncoat on family in the interest of justice? Telling her bitchy Nellie Oleson cousin to bugger off? Check and check. Missy Wright, Spinster Superhero. 

The most interesting thing about her, though, is the lie she concocts to secure her own happiness, by deciding that John Smith—appearing out of nowhere as a sort of Paul Bunyan Prince Charming—is her ticket to salvation. Did you care that she lies to him? Or that she gets away with it? I did not, since I'm an American and we want what we want when we want it, no matter who we're tricking into emergency fake death nuptials, although I certainly see how this might read as "unwise" in a rational human light. Does it matter? Is a lie really an untruth if it ends well for everyone involved? As Missy tells Una,

"I had to resort to trickery and deception to get him."

"If you couldn't get him any other way, why not?"

"I told him I was dying of heart trouble."

"Aren't we all?"

Una's the kind of pal you want by your side when the chips are down, obviously, although she's also the type who might talk you into shoplifting or pulling some Thelma-and-Louise-type gas station heist. I get the sense that I should be outraged by these machinations of the heart, although Missy's man-trapping scheme is straight out of a daytime soap opera and not unlike how I myself once dreamed of nabbing a Quartermaine. Also it's just a story, and isn't fiction a safe space where one is allowed—nay, encouraged—to imagine all sorts of unimaginable things? Thus I harbor no objections. Case closed.

4. Let's talk about Una! Una the ghost, Una the fairy godmother. Did you guess this as you were reading, what with the constant references to her preternatural aura? (I'm sorry to say it only made me picture Mr. Burns' nuclear glow in that "Springfield Files" episode.) Her surprise appearances and absences, arriving at the perfect moment with the perfect smutty book or the perfect red dress, always one step ahead of the curve? Or the fact that no one but Missy seems to know she exists? 

She sat in stony silence, unable to move the smallest part of her. Una. Una!

How could her mother and aunt sit there so unresponsive to that name, when they had met her and entertained her in this very house? Didn't they remember the biscuits, the documents?

Haven't they ever seen "The Sixth Sense"?!

Una drops hints herself when we first meet her in the library, as she tells Missy about her divorce: "So here I am, washed ashore for the very last time in a backwater like Byron, doing penance for my sins." The way this is stated actually makes it sound like she's John Smith's fairy godmother, not Missy's. And what a different story that would make.

5. Let's talk about the ending: 

A chill breeze puffed in through the open door, and just before Drusilla reached to shut it out, it whispered for Missy's ears alone, "Never tell him! Oh please, never tell him!"

Now you tell me: does that sound like a happy ending, or a curse?