Margaret Kennedy Day: Together and Apart

together and apart

FIrst off, I have to say that I’m very proud of myself for remembering that Jane was holding her Margaret Kennedy Day and for having a Margaret Kennedy book on my shelves and for making the time to read it! With all of the reading I’d been doing for the presentation I gave a few weeks ago I thought that I’d never have time to join in any reading challenges again – but here we are and I actually completed one. So, I’m just happy for that.

And I’m even happier that the book I happened to read is an absolutely wonderful novel. Published in 1936 (and dedicated to Rose Macaulay) it is essentially the story of a divorce and how it subsequently affects each member of the Canning family. As the novel begins they’re at their summer home in Wales where relations between the parents, Alec and Betsy, are tense and strained. Betsy wants a divorce, but Alec doesn’t. The children know nothing of the negotiations between their parents until Alec suddenly leaves one Sunday morning – for good.

The oldest boy Kenneth passionately sides with his mother, refusing to speak with his father ever again. Eliza, the middle child, secretly prefers to go with her father. And the youngest girl, Daphne, doesn’t really care. As the next year passes all of the children are changed by the breakup of their family especially when their parents find other spouses and seem to move on with their lives. And of course Alec and Betsy are changed too.

It’s a heartbreaking depiction of how awful divorce can be, even when it may the best thing to do. The characters are intensely real, faulted and, at times, not very likeable. But always believable and worthy of our sympathy – even when they’re being appallingly stupid.

One of the amazing things about the book is that it hardly feels dated. I felt I could have been reading about a modern family – the same struggles, fears, financial concerns, and child custody and neglect issues as written about in contemporary family dramas appear in this novel.

Kennedy is very observant of human nature which is one of my favorite traits in a writer. I love books that tell the same story from each character’s different viewpoint and she is so good at getting into the mind of every member of the Canning family (except for Daphne – she’s a bit of a shadow).

In a way, this reminded me somewhat of Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings, with a similar look at how trauma shatters the lives of an entire family.

All in all, I really enjoyed Together and Apart and am glad to have finally read Margaret Kennedy.

The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter



This was one of the two books I completed in April (only two!) and I chose it partly for its slim profile. I bought it last year after coming home from a trip to Colorado with a desire to read about the Southwest then promptly stuck it in the book case, where it stayed quietly forgotten until its time came due.

The novel is set in New Mexico during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and is told from the viewpoint of Hal, a young man who lives with his uncle, the Colonel, a powerful cattle rancher who owns thousands of acres of grazing land but also grazes his cattle on government land (as many ranchers, including my grandfather, still do). A conflict ensues when eastern immigrants, whom the New Mexicans call ‘nesters’, put in claims with the government to settle the land the Colonel has been using for his cattle. The nesters move in and the Colonel adjusts, but his power wanes.

Around the same time, he marries. Beautiful Lutie Cameron meets the Colonel on one of his trips to St. Louis, where he sells his cattle, and agrees to marry him and move out to New Mexico to live on his ranch. Once she arrives she doesn’t complain about the harsh and lonely living conditions, but she does everything she can think of to ignore the fact that she lives in the middle of the desert with rough ranch hands. She plants cottonwood trees all around the property to hide the view and constantly entertains friends from town. Then one day she disappears, leaving the Colonel and their three children behind.

And the nesters eventually leave also, abandoning their dugouts and crops to the harsh land of little rain. Yet still the Colonel ages and loses the power he had over the town and the influence he wielded in his heyday. He mourns the loss of Lutie. Progress changes his world and leads to another family tragedy.

The Sea of Grass is lyrically written and aims to portray a changing West through the story of one pioneer who stoically succumbs to the march of progress and his wife’s rejection of his beloved way of life. The writing is sparse yet descriptive with lovely passages about the desert landscape scattered throughout the narrative. The Colonel and Lutie are complex characters whom Hal struggles to understand because their motives and actions are always clouded by their own misunderstanding of each other and, unlike the typical Western novel, nothing is black and white in their lives. I liked that the novel was about the West, but doesn’t have any violence or macho male characters. It is a subtle and gentle novel about a world that was lost a long time ago and is still mourned.

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

This is my second Whipple of the summer and a very entertaining read it turned out to be. I saw this described somewhere as 1930’s chick lit and I wouldn’t dispute that. It is very dramatic, emotional, concerned with families, marriage and children and is slightly neurotic. It wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed the ride.

Saunby Priory, the unkempt, rambling home of the Marwood family dominates the novel and is a touchstone for many of its characters. When the novel opens, Colonel Marwood lives in the house with his sister, Victoria, and his two distant daughters, Penelope and Christine. They are penniless and disconnected so the Colonel marries a local spinster, Anthea, hoping that she will put the house in order and bring discipline to his daughters. The early pages of the novel focus on Anthea so I thought that this novel was going to be her story and that we would read about her struggles with married life and financial difficulties. Whipple, however, steers the story down a completely different path and this unexpectedly becomes the tale of Christine and her experience after she leaves Saunby to get married and start a new life.

Colonel Marwood is obsessed with cricket and during his annual cricket fortnight Christine meets Nicholas Ashwell, a handsome son of privilege with a domineering father. Christine falls hopelessly in love and she and Nicholas hastily marry. Well, you can imagine the problems that accompany a young marriage between a sheltered wife and a spoiled and lazy husband.

Newstead Abbey, Whipple’s inspiration for Saunby Priory.

Christine always turns to Saunby when she is most desperate and toward the end of the novel I realized that the priory (though you would think the title would have given me a clue) was the major character of the novel, ever stable, ever reliable, bringing comfort and sanity to nearly every character.

This is one of those novels that has an exuberantly happy ending, with Saunby playing the main role in the conclusion. The majority of the characters suffer terrible trauma and sadness so I was glad that Whipple gave them some relief, though as the novel ends in 1938 their happiness might be short lived.

The Priory is a stylish domestic novel that completely consumed my attention. It may resemble chick lit, but as with the best domestic novels it explores social ills and world politics as they affect children and mothers – the people who are sometimes most affected by poverty and war yet least recognized as survivors. But it is also entertaining, featuring strong characters and a pleasingly twisty plot. I’ve really enjoyed both Dorothy Whipple novels I’ve read and look forward to reading many more.

Any suggestions for my next Whipple? I’m thinking perhaps They Were Sisters will be the one I try next.

RLRW:A Note in Music by Rosamond Lehmann

“Beauty is a visitor, coming without warning, transforming for an hour, a day – sometimes for longer; crumbling at a breath, vanished again.”

I bought A Note in Music last year after reading Invitation to the Waltz , which I was instantly smitten with. I loved Lehmann’s unique writing style and knew that I wanted to explore more of her writing. Thanks to Florence and Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week I’ve been given the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Norah and Grace are quietly unhappy friends in 1930’s North England. When Hugh Miller, a young, vibrant, energetic man enters their lives he becomes a symbol of everything they feel is just out of reach in their own desperate homes. He epitomizes the freedom, spontaneity , beauty and energy that their own lackluster lives are in need of. They both fixate on him and build fantasies around their vision of who he is and what he represents. It’s true that Hugh and his sister Clare, with their youth and beauty, invigorate everyone whom they come in contact with, however Hugh is not all that the women imagine he is. Unsettled and with heartbreak in his past, Hugh has mastered the act of seeming joyful and untroubled while in his quiet moments he doubts himself and even contemplates suicide. But Norah and Grace never know him as a real person – he is only a representation of all that they want in the world and don’t have and his very presence causes them, especially Grace, to lose hope in the reality of day-to-day existence. When Hugh leaves town will his brief, shining spirit change them for the better or leave them bitter?

A Note in Music is a very melancholy novel, one that doesn’t offer many light or rosy moments for its readers. I found it easy to sympathize with the characters at first, for haven’t most of us felt trapped in the rut of commonplace life? I felt the excitement that Grace feels when Hugh is around, the romantic and positive mood that he ushers in to every situation and her despondency when she isn’t near him. But it began to wear – I wanted Grace to create delight in her own life instead of relying on an unsuspecting young man to generate it for her. And I wanted her to see the blessings that were all around her and to appreciate her good fortune. Her only solace comes from nature and Lehmann perfectly describes the trees, flowers and plants that give Grace comfort.

As I read I was struck by the similarities between Lehmann and the writing of D.H. Lawrence. They both philosophize quite a bit and use veiled, elaborate sentences to convey their message which doesn’t come through (to me anyway) very easily. They also both excel at creating characters who frustrate and bewilder and at striving for understanding that seems just beyond the reach of the characters and the reader.

Though I didn’t like this novel as much as I liked Invitation to the Waltz I am happy I read it. Lehmann is a wonderful writer and has a genius for channeling the subtleties of human emotions and relationships that is staunchly believable.

Did you read a Rosamond Lehmann novel for RLRW?

Go here for inspiration that helps me not to be like Grace.

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

Greenbanks was my Persephone Secret Santa gift from Danielle way back in December. It was exactly what I wanted and I was so happy to get it, but then I put it on my bedside table and didn’t even think about it again until a few weeks ago when I was searching for a really good domestic novel to get lost in. Greenbanks fit the bill splendidly.

It tells the story of the Ashton family and is set before, during and a few years after the Great War. We see their world through the eyes of several of the female members of the family and it is mostly painful and baffling for them. They deal with adulterous spouses, missed romantic connections, death, financial worries and everyday heartbreak. The Ashton matriarch, Louisa, firmly holds on to her ideals during each and every challenge and is the backbone for her children and especially for her granddaughter, Rachel.

This novel is quiet and unassuming. The writing isn’t fancy and there aren’t any impressive lyrical passages. It is solid, wonderfully solid, storytelling and a very real and believable tale about families. Most of the characters are flawed and broken, just as are those of us who are reading their story and that made me like the novel even more. I also enjoyed the inclusion of little domestic details such as the descriptions of meal preparation, knitting and embroidery projects, interior design decisions and wardrobe choices.

I hope this doesn’t make it sound like a sweet or sappy novel because it isn’t at all. It is moving and thoughtful and I look forward to reading more novels by Dorothy Whipple. Have you read her novels? Which one do you recommend?

Go here to read a fascinating talk about Dorothy Whipple and the allure of her writing.

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Christmas Reading: A Holiday for Murder by Agatha Christie

My continued craving for holiday reading brought me to A Holiday for Murder, also known as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. I’ve seen the tv version of this mystery novel, but couldn’t remember who the culprit was so thought it would be safe to read it. It isn’t really a Christmas story – the murder takes place at Christmas, but there is hardly any mention of the holiday or the traditions surrounding it. That was okay, though, because reading it reacquainted me with Agatha Christie, whom I haven’t read in many years.

This novel finds Poirot spending Christmas with Colonel Johnson when they are called to Gorston Hall, the scene of a horrific murder. Simeon Lee, the wealthy patriarch of a bickering family, has had his throat slashed. His four sons and their wives, plus two unexpected guests, have assembled for Christmas and they all become suspects as the room Lee was killed in was locked from the inside and the window closed. The assumption is that an intruder would not have been able to leave the house unseen.

The usual interrogations and sly Poirot ‘conversations’ soon give him all the information he needs to reveal the killer of Simeon Lee. It is a very tricky outcome and I definitely didn’t guess who the culprit was.

Agatha Christie is a forceful writer and I’d forgotten how colorful her characters are. I wouldn’t recommend this novel if you are looking for holiday cheer, but it is a good example of the ‘locked room mystery’.

I’d like to read some of her other novels next year – do you have a favorite Christie novel? What is her best mystery?

endpapers designed by Peggy Skycraft.