Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A New Favorite

I am not a book blogger. I write my thoughts on specific books for the challenges I can’t seem to keep from joining and for the detective book club, and I like to give synopses of favorite reads twice a year. But that’s about it. I can’t even begin to write about books the way those who teach books do like Hobs and Dorr and Litlove. Right now, I have a long list of things I want to turn into blog posts, like why we need more female CEOs, especially at certain kinds of companies. I want to write about complications that arise when a romantic soul is paired with an unromantic one. I want to tell you about my frustrations with the novel that just isn’t happening. And then there’s music. I have a post that’s almost written on the best rock guitarists ever and another one on radio stations I have known and loved. There are even a couple of memes out there calling my name. Oh, yeah, and then there’s the ecojustice challenge that’s beginning to feel very neglected, because I haven’t given an update in ages, and I’ve actually finished another graphic novel for the graphic novel challenge.

However, I recently read a book that just won’t leave me alone. It’s been badgering me day and night to share my thoughts on it. It’s why I’m sitting here, starting to compose this little piece at 11:00 p.m. when I should be in bed, because I’ve got to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning to review material for a meeting I have at 9:00. I want to tell it to go away, to leave me alone, but you know me. Who am I to tell a book to shut up?

This book just might have to give Thomas Hardy and Tess a gentle nudge off that alphabetical list of favorite reads of mine to take the “H” spot. I can hear those of you who recently voiced your disdain for Tess of the d’Urbervilles saying, “Oh good. She’s finally come to her senses.” But I haven’t. I’m not sure this tragic work really deserves to replace that one, as far as tragedies go. The thing is, though, when I read Tess I find myself thinking, “Well, of course this book has to be tragic. There’s no hope here, and no way Hardy could have made this particular story anything other than tragic.” While reading this book, though, my thoughts ran more towards, “Oh, I know it’s headed for disaster, but it doesn’t have to be!” The fact of the matter, though, is that like most family stories, it does. And it has to be tragic just as much as Tess does. The genius of this book is that the author is so convincing. The reader hopes family stories aren’t so inevitable, hopes that our roles aren’t cut out for us basically from the day we’re born, hopes that these roles are not all but impossible to escape.

The book is Eustace and Hilda by L.P. Hartley. You know how a while ago I mentioned that it had been a very bad idea to ILL a 700+ paged trilogy? Well, this was that book. I did manage to get a 2-week renewal on it, which was a good thing, because this is not a book to speed read (not that I’m capable of reading at more than a glacial pace anyway). I’ve discovered another reason it was a bad idea as an inter-library loan: this is a book to own, a book to return to at a later date, a book to quote to friends. It’s also a book you want everyone you know to read, so you need to have a copy (or 2) to lend.

This is not an action-packed page-turner. It is an old-fashioned novel in the best sense of the word (despite the fact it’s really three novels in one). Truly laugh-out-loud funny in those parts where we dreamers/worriers completely recognize ourselves in Eustace, yet such a heartbreaking story overall. This is not one to read if you’re seeking a love story with a happy ending.

Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason (read: I let my compulsive nature, which likes to start at the beginning and end at the end in all things, have its way for a change in this matter), I read the Introduction first, when I almost always read that after I’ve finished a book. And this time, I’m really mad that I did that, because the Introduction, of course, laid out exactly what was going to happen. No writer of introductions should be allowed to do that (the pieces ought to be Afterwords, if they insist). For a book like this one, it’s irresponsible, if not downright criminal. Yes, the book has a forbidding undertone throughout that signals doom, but does any reader really need to know the details of what that doom includes before reading the book?

Anyway (I’m hopping off and shoving the soapbox away now), the different levels of this book and all its complexities just amazed me. I wish I were back in school and could write a paper on it. I’d have so many topics to consider for a thesis: sibling relationships (Eustace and Hilda are brother and sister); what dooms a love affair; the roles of rich benefactresses; whether or not Eustace and Hilda were a replica of their father and aunt, repeating family history; class differences, which seem to be a major subject in almost all great early twentieth-century English literature. Then, of course, there are the personal associations, because I am a dreamer/worrier like Eustace. I hope Ian doesn’t think I’m his Hilda. I can’t imagine any brother/sister reading this book and not adamantly denying any glimpses of Eustace/Hilda in their own relationships.

For some reason, both the Ruin-It-All Introduction Writer for this edition (David Cecil, by the way for anyone who’s interested) and the cover copy on this book refer to Eustace as a hedonist (my guess is the cover copywriter was just pinching from Cecil's piece). Has the meaning of that word changed? Or, is it one of those words that means something completely different to everyone other than literary critics, the sort of word literary critics like to use in an obscure way to separate themselves from the riff-raff of common readers? I suppose, compared maybe to some of the puritans surrounding him, he looks like the kind of guy who would spend his days lolling on beaches, drinking umbrella drinks, and sleeping with a different woman every night, never a care in the world for work or any practicalities of living. Cecil's point may be that this is Eustace’s nature, what he would have been without the reigning puritan influence in his family and among his acquaintances, most notably Hilda. However, “hedonist” is the last word that ought to be used to describe him (mind you, you’ve got nothing but riff-raff here making this point).

Dreamers/worriers do not good hedonists make. They have very keen vision when it comes to seeing what would happen if they did nothing but loll on the beach, drink umbrella drinks, and bed down with as many partners as possible (skin cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, and AIDS to name a few in this day and age). And that’s what makes Eustace so charming and funny. He’s not a hedonist. Under all those filmy layers of dreams, he’s a realist. For instance, he works hard at school. He does not separate himself from his sister, never looking back. (And that, because I don’t believe in revealing plots, is all I’ll say about that. I’m being very good here, because much more happens to Eustace that I’d love to discuss, but I won’t.)

And then there’s Hilda. She’s not quite as well-drawn as Eustace. We’re not really meant to sympathize with her, and we don’t really until the latter parts of the trilogy (when it’s sort of a surprise for some of us to find ourselves doing so). Ultimately, though, I came to realize that the poor thing can’t really help what she is. I most especially settled on this idea when I started thinking about the family’s situation and the only real models she had: her father and her Aunt Sarah (Eustace’s feelings toward Aunt Sarah are so revealing in this regard).

My only real complaints are that some of the dreams aren’t dream-like enough and that the sea anemone and the shrimp (which is the title of the first book in the series) are overdone. These two creatures and the siblings’ interactions with them are a great way to set the stage, but Hartley hits us over the head with them. He leaves such a vivid image in the reader’s mind from the get-go that the impact would have been greater had he never mentioned them again, never felt the need to revisit them. The last visit is so unnecessary as to be almost distracting.

However, I don’t feel truly comfortable in having voiced such complaints, because I, of course, will never write a masterpiece such as this one, so who am I to complain? After all, this book is full of sentences that beg to be read two or three times to savor their perfection (and to strike awe – or maybe utter despair – in would-be writers). I’d quote some for you, but I can’t, because I had to return the book. If anyone’s trying to figure out what to get me for Christmas this year, I think I just may have an idea…


Hartley, L.P. Eustace and Hilda. Stein and Day, 1986

8 comments:

fiona said...

Well, you've sold me. First, I'm impressed by anything that can edge out "Tess"...then, by the great details you share about this fascinating book. Off to my online library site to see if I can find it! Thanks!

Lokesh said...

Well, if you're not a book blogger, you do a very good impression of one. Great post. I'd only heard of Hartley's 'The Go-Between' before, and that just for its opening line. - And get back on that soapbox because you're absolutely right: so-called 'introductions' like that should really be at the end.

stefanie said...

Don't sell yourself short Emily! I thought you wrote marvelously about this book! I have added it to my TBR list you've made it sound so wonderful. I have a couple very large books to finish so there is no telling when I might get to this one, but I will!

Courtney said...

What an incredible review!I've been looking for a book to really sink my teeth into...you've got me thinking about this one,certainly. Onto the amazon wish list it goes.
Hope you and Dorothy had a wonderful weekend - I wish I could have joined you. Although, in this heat, mid-day hiking might have been somewhat miserable.

BooksPlease said...

You are a book blogger. The way you write about books shows your love of them, especially when you write about a book that just won't leave you alone and explain so clearly what it's about without giving anything away.

I read your post a few days ago and just had to come back and say what a great post it is. Like Stefanie I've some large books to read but I will add this to my list of tbr books.

Emily Barton said...

Fiona, oh, so glad to have sold you. I promise you won't be disappointed.
(Still not completely sure, though, if it really ought to replace dear old Tess.)

Lokesh, glad you like my impression. The Go-Between (because it was made into a movie) seems to be his most well-known work, but I'm now eager to read anything I can get my hands on. My friend tells me The Hireling should be read next, and then his collected stories.

Stef, payback time, yet again, since books constantly make it into my TBR tome due to you. I think you will REALLY like this one and can't wait to hear what you think when you get around to reading it.

Court, you'll like it. No question. We certainly missed you this weekend, but (surprise, surprise), I had the exact same thought: this was not hiking weather.

BP, thank you! I still don't think I do it quite as well as others, but thanks anyway. And, again, I think you'll like the book.

Dark Orpheus said...

I would definitely be interested in reading a post about the best rock guitarist ever.

Emily Barton said...

DO, coming soon...