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?

Notes on “The Ladies of Missalonghi”

A reminder: I'll be posting my important thoughts here on or around June 27 and invite you to do the same. All I can say at this point is that I hope you're all still speaking to me after this book. I finished it yesterday and can't say I regret it, exactly, but I do suspect my near 30-year-old memory of loving it may have led us down a somewhat crooked path. In other news, I will not be re-reading Danielle Steel's "Palomino" anytime soon.

Here are some things to ponder while you read, borrowed mostly from the fiction guides at Book Browse and Lit Lovers:

  1. How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to get into it? How did you feel reading it—amused, sad, disturbed, confused, bored...?
  2. What's the significance of the title?
  3. What is Missy's role in the family? What is her relationship to the other characters? How does it change throughout the story?
  4. Did you find the characters convincing? Do they seem alive to you? Did their actions make sense to you? Did you find them troubling? 
  5. Was the plot interesting? Did you find it engaging or formulaic? Believable? 
  6. Would you call the ending surprising or predictable? Does it unfold naturally or is it forced or manipulative? Is it satisfying, or would you prefer a different ending?
  7. What about the theme—the larger meaning behind the work? What ideas does McCullough explore with the story and characters, or the setting? What is she trying to say? Did she say it effectively?
  8. Does the setting color the telling of the story or is it merely a backdrop? What about the time period? Did you learn anything new?

If you have questions before we discuss, feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks, sorry, and happy reading!

p.s. I came across an interesting aside yesterday in Colleen McCullough's obituary in the New York Times. A smarter person would probably have unearthed this news prior to reading the book but alas I am not that smart person:

She drew unwelcome attention in 1987 with the publication of her novella “The Ladies of Missalonghi,” about an impecunious woman in early-20th-century Australia. As some critics pointed out, the book’s plot, characters and narrative details strongly resembled those of “The Blue Castle,” a 1926 novel by L. M. Montgomery, the author of “Anne of Green Gables.”

How do you like them apples!? I haven't read the LMM book and definitely will not seek it out (everything that came after AoGG gave me cavities), but here's another take if you'd like to do some detective work of your own.

A very casual book club: you’re all invited

I picked up Anne Tyler's "A Spool of Blue Thread" at the bookstore today and then checked out its performance in the 2016 Morning News Tournament of Books. While it did not advance to the semifinals, this comment from John Warner caught my eye:

Anne Tyler isn’t a particularly flashy writer, but if you ask a bunch of regular readers, I think you’re likely to have a fair number telling you that she’s one of their favorite authors.

Anne Tyler is a writer I love to read, and I do consider myself a "regular reader," which to me is someone who reads a book, maybe chats about it with a friend, recommends it to a couple other friends, and then moves on with her life. As a regular reader, I know a writer succeeds if I want to keep reading. I'm not looking for flashy or trendy. I don't worry too much about themes or subtext or even context; I want a good story well told. The end.

Except that's not even close to the end, because we're going to have a Very Casual Book Club this summer right here at the newly reborn Litwit. That is, a book club for regular readers who want to talk about what they've read: no degree needed, no study required. There are no rules; I'll post some stuff that you may want to consider as you read, but it's all optional. All I want to do is talk about books with friends on this blog, and on the designated meeting date I'll post my thoughts and you can post yours. 

In June we'll be reading "The Ladies of Missalonghi" by Colleen McCullough, as decided by me. I hope you'll join us.*

From the Publisher's Weekly liner notes:

"Like a box of chocolates, this short novel by McCullough is seductive and satisfying; readers will want to devour it in one sitting. Set in the early 1900s in the tiny town of Byron, nestled in the Australia's Blue Mountains, it tells of the blossoming of Missy Wright, 33-year-old spinster and poor relation of the town's ruling family, the Hurlingfords. Missy, her widowed mother and crippled aunt live in genteel poverty, victims of the Hurlingford inheritance policy that gives riches and power to the male members of the family, who heartlessly abuse the women they dominate. Plain, painfully thin and doomed to dress always in serviceable brown, shockingly dark-haired in a clan of luminous blondes, Missy seems fated for a dreary future until a distant cousin, a divorcee, arrives from Sydney."

*Well, that summary was almost as long as the book, which was written in 1988 and which I have not read since college. It is only 189 pages. Maybe it's terrible! Who knows, only time will tell. You should be able to find it at your local library, and then you have until June 27 to wrap it up and start talking. If you have any questions or suggestions in the meantime, just leave them in the comments.

Looking forward to reading with you, friends!

Reading Brooklyn Part Three: "It changed everything Eilis thought about her time in Brooklyn."

Say, I'll bet it did! This is the end, friends.

** AND THIS IS WHERE ALL THE SPOILERS COME, BY THE WAY **

Rose. Rose, Rose, Rose.

Eilis looked at the pile of letters Rose had sent her, wondering if between sending one of these and sending the next Rose had learned that she was sick. Or is she had known before Eilis had left. It changed everything Eilis thought about her time in Brooklyn, it made everything that had happened to her seem small. She looked at Rose's handwriting, its clarity and evenness, its sense of supreme self-possession and self-confidence, and she wondered whether, while writing some of these words, Rose had looked up and sighed and then, though sheer strength of will, steeled herself and carried on writing, not faltering for a single moment from her decision to let no one share her knowledge except the doctor who had told her.

Rose is the engine that turns the machine, every step of the way. Did she know all along? I think she did; I think she sent Eilis away to try to save her because she knew what was coming, that Eilis would never be strong enough to save herself. Then what happens: Eilis comes home, spends one day doing Rose's job at Davis's and is perfectly satisfied! She has no desire at all to save herself, nor does she imagine that she needs saving. She's willing to melt into whatever environment currently contains her and get on with things. Lack of peripheral vision, I guess. Limited scope. (Though she's limited by gender, geography, circumstance, history, society, personality, etc. It's a tangle of limits.)

You all can go on & on about Tony. I thought he was a drip. Though is he set up specifically to be a drip? He's like a golden retriever. I'm not wild about Jim Farrell, either, who is more like a leg-humping Doberman, but I sure called that one! For a while there in Parts Two and Three I feared you might think I was an idiot. I had trouble warming up to both because they felt decided to me; neither was a conscious choice that she made but a direction that had been arranged for her before she even noticed. But the whole book is like that. Does she ever choose freely? Does she even have the choice to choose freely? Does she even seem to care?

It occurred to her, as she walked down the aisle with Jim and her mother and joined the well-wishers outside the church, where the weather had brightened, that she was sure that she did not love Tony now. He seemed part of a dream from which she had woken with considerable force some time before, and in this waking time his presence, once so solid, lacked any substance or form; it was merely a shadow at the edge of every moment of the day and night.

Now what happens when she gets off that boat?

Reading Brooklyn Part Two: "We need Irish girls in America."

Friends! The question we should all be asking ourselves is why it's taking me five weeks to read one book. One 262 page book. (This is purposely not written in the form of a question because I have no good answer.) I'm also afraid I don't have the patience for <50 pages a week; it weakens the narrative for me, stretching something out like that. So I'm going to finish the book this week, and next Friday will post an open thread that you all can comment on at your leisure, and then let's move on.

Moving on.

I'm so happy that Eilis is finally growing a spine. There's a little paragraph in there, after she's spent the whole day crying in the basement of Bartocci's, where she realizes that she has power and can apply it at will. Sort of like the Incredible Hulk. Of course this realization comes by acknowledging that she's alone in the world, that no one—friend or family—can help her get through. She just has to get through. And I suppose that's growing up.

Miss Fortini told her to sit down and filled her another glass of water and left the room. It was clear to Eilis as she waited there that she was not going to be sacked. As a result, she was almost proud of how she had managed Miss Fortini, letting her ask all the questions and answering as little as she could, but enough not to seem surly or ungrateful. She felt almost strong as she contemplated what had just happened and she resolved that no matter who came into the room now, even if it were Mr. Bartocci himself, she would be able to elicit their sympathy. It was not as though there was nothing wrong; whatever darkness she felt had not lifted. But she could not tell them that she dreaded their shop and their customers, and that she hated Mrs. Kehoe's house, and there was nothing any of them could do for her. Yet she would have to keep her job. And she believed she had achieved that much and it gave her a feeling of satisfaction that appeared to melt into her sadness, or float on its surface, distracting her, at least for now, from the worst parts of it.

There she is, feeling out both her limits and her freedom. Also facing America in all its messy melting pot glory, where everybody hates somebody else, some group, just because they're somebody else. The Italians! The Jews! ("I didn't come all the way to America, thank you, to hear people talking Italian on the street or see them wearing funny hats." I laughed and laughed at that line.) But Eilis appreciates small graces: "The Italian women, Eilis wrote, ironed everything beautifully and put starch into her dresses and blouses, which she loved." Oh, humanity! She says little but notices much, and remembers it.

And what of that Christmas party? I loved that party, the warmth and community and tightness of it. Says Father Flood, "Yes, they are all leftover Irishmen, they built the tunnels and the bridges and the highways. Some of them I only see once a year. God knows what they live on." The promise of America: what's good can be bad and vice versa. Nothing has only one side to it.

Reading Brooklyn Part One: “Time and patience would bring a snail to America”

She had already packed one case and hoped, as she went over its contents in her mind, that she would not have to open it again. It struck her on one of those nights, as she lay awake, that the next time she would open that suitcase it would be in a different room in a different country, and then the thought came unbidden into her mind that she would be happier if it were opened by another person who could keep the clothes and shoes and wear them every day. She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the clothes and shoes. The arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else, she thought, someone like her, someone the same age and size, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the day went on in these familiar streets and come home to the kitchen, to her mother and Rose.

I'm sorry to be obvious, but the most amazing thing to me is that a man wrote this about a young woman, had this kind of understanding about a young woman. Knew that feeling of being so small and wanting only to be smaller. It's got such a deeply internal, shy, tied to home, female understanding to it, but I know I'm being narrow here, because Eilis's brother Jack says essentially the same thing to her, says when he first got to Birmingham that he was "desperate to go home." That's a heavy thing to admit for a brother who won't even give you a hug before you sail away to America. And I know fear and loneliness are universal and not all women feel this way either, of course, but this was me on the way to Paris—desperate and small—this was me on the way to New York City, and Chicago, and college, and Girl Scout Camp, and even though Fran Lebowitz says—and sounds quite logical as she's saying it—that "a book is not supposed to be a mirror, it's supposed to be a door," can't it be a little of both? Sometimes? And a man saw all of that and wrote it down.

This is one of my nonlinear-thinking days, I guess. Also slightly sexist.

Then look at the holes in this family, all of these women left behind, a town full of missing men, that absence marks everything. Rose has one path because of that absence, and Eilis has no choice but to follow another, even Miss Kelly, they all just put their heads down and keep moving. Where are the choices, so many choices, even the choice to complain about your choices? There are no choices here, and you can see it in the writing, this quiet, resigned, dispassionate voice that all the while is driving somewhere, there's such inevitable forward motion in the construction of the sentences. You know? The last sentence in the paragraph above is 77 words long; it's a desperate sentence and in it she keeps looping back to define herself, to find herself, to plant herself somewhere solid and familiar and not let go, and the desperation builds as it goes, you can feel it in your chest—it's not in a hurry, that sentence, but it is going somewhere.

And poor Nancy Byrne, just beside herself trying to catch that George Sheridan at the Sunday dance! Christ, what a painful scene that was, waiting to get picked out of the lineup, waiting to be good enough, thinking "My life is at stake," because it is, in a way, and the whole time there's Jim Farrell standing nearby, giving Eilis the full-on Mr. Darcy. (I suspect we'll be seeing Jim Farrell again in the future, yes? I always ask myself these little questions when new characters appear—what is the purpose of this person in our story? Miss Kelly has served her purpose already—the path we absolutely do not want to follow—and so have Nancy Byrne and even George Sheridan, but I don't think we've seen Jim Farrell's purpose yet. But of course I am only guessing; it's just a little game, me trying to get one step ahead of Mr. Smartypants Man-Booker-Nominated Colm Tóibín. Of whom: j'adore.)

Anyway, books by men about women: I like that. I like it when a male author acknowledges that our lives—even those of us who live shy quiet internal little lives—are worth exploring from the inside out, with caution and curiosity and care.

————————————————————————————————————

And what did you think? Did you like it? Believe it? Believe the characters, believe the voices? Does it seem true? Did it occur to you as you were reading that it was written by a man? If so, did that color your involvement with the story? Color your response to the characters? Do you identify with Eilis? With Rose? Do you need to? Who—if anyone—gets your sympathy? Empathy? Are they the same thing? (I can never remember.) Does it remind you of any other books? Does Tóibín remind you of any other writers? Can you see Ernest Hemingway turning out a story like this, or Margaret Atwood? What about Anne Tyler? Philip Roth? What is Tóibín trying to do? What kind of story is he telling? Is this a chronicle or a fable? Does it matter? What does Eilis want? Do you think she'll get it? Do you want her to get it? Would you have gotten on that boat, or would you have sent Rose? (If I'd known about the vomit, I would have sent Rose.)

I'm just thinking out loud here, friends, and lifting a few questions from Susan Wise Bauer, who may or may not be full of shit. As always, feel free to discuss anything you like. I am at your mercy.

Let’s read “Brooklyn” by Colm Tóibín

For our first Casual Book Club*, we'll be reading Colm TĂłibĂ­n's Brooklyn, which is available everywhere.** Here's the blurb from amazon.com ($10.20 + taxes and shipping):

Committed to a quiet life in little Enniscorthy, Ireland, the industrious young Eilis Lacey reluctantly finds herself swept up in an unplanned adventure to America, engineered by the family priest and her glamorous, "ready for life" sister, Rose. Eilis's determination to embrace the spirit of the journey despite her trepidation—especially on behalf of Rose, who has sacrificed her own chance of leaving—makes a bittersweet center for Brooklyn. Colm Tóibín's spare portrayal of this contemplative girl is achingly lovely, and every sentence rings with truth. Readers will find themselves swept across the Atlantic with Eilis to a boarding house in Brooklyn where she painstakingly adapts to a new life, reinventing herself and her surroundings in the letters she writes home. Just as she begins to settle in with the help of a new love, tragedy calls her home to Enniscorthy, and her separate lives suddenly and painfully merge into one. Tóibín's haunted heroine glows on the page, unforgettably and lovingly rendered, and her story reflects the lives of so many others exiled from home. —Daphne Durham

I'll give you until Wednesday, 3/31, to buy the book and read the first chapter (it's not a long book, and I don't want this to get lost over Easter). After that, we'll see what kind of timeframe works best: a chapter check-in each week, or a final report sometime in April. Later this week I'll post some "tips for reading" or stuff to consider while you read, but that's all optional.

*When I say "casual," I really mean it. I'm not looking for dissertations or hardcore analysis of theme or character or philosophy or structure (though if somebody has that to offer, by all means). If all you want to say is "I loved it," or "I hated it," that's fine, too. Although I trust you'll have some thoughtful reasoning to back it up, because I intend for this to be a conversation, in which you, as grownups with minds who agree to participate, are expected to take part.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave them in the comments here. Looking forward to reading with you, friends!

** I cannot confirm this, so you are on your own. But I assure you it's not an obscure title, so any Borders or B&N should have it in stock. Or Wal-Mart, if you're lucky.