Fiction: “Persuasion” by Jane Austen

PersuasionSo right off the bat – yes, Pride and Prejudice is great. And sure, Mr. Darcy is swoon-worthy (to a point – especially when portrayed by Colin Firth). And I know there are a lot of people out there who would die for Colonel Brandon. But for my money, Persuasion is the best love story Jane Austen ever wrote.

Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, the middle sister between Elizabeth and Mary. Their mother died, leaving their father, Sir Walter Elliot, in charge of their fortunes. Sir Walter Elliot is – to put it lightly – a vain narcissistic idiot. He doesn’t understand that when you purchase things on credit, eventually the credit gots to be paid. He also cares very very much about what others think of him, and he strives to be thought of in only the best of terms. (Spoiler Alert!: He’s not.)

At the beginning of the novel, Sir Walter is arranging Kellynch Hall, the family estate, to be let. He and Elizabeth and Anne will temporarily relocate to Bath while they earn income on the rented house and land. Anne is not interested in going to Bath and ends up staying with her younger sister Mary, who is a right pain in the ass. But Anne is happy to be in the country instead of Bath, and she is glad to be “of use”, so she stays behind. She and her surrogate mother figure, Lady Russell, will both go to Bath nearer to Christmas.

While taking care of Mary, Anne meets the renters of Kellynch Hall – Admiral Croft and his wife Sophia, who is the sister of Captain Frederick Wentworth.

And here’s where it gets good.

See – seven years ago, when Anne was 19, she was engaged to Captain Wentworth! Except he wasn’t a captain back then – he was a perfectly nice young man, clever and sure of himself, and he had just enlisted with the Navy. But Sir Walter – and Lady Russell and Elizabeth as well – were of the opinion that a Navy man was just not important enough for an Elliot to marry. Wentworth didn’t have a family patronage in Debrett’s Peerage, nor was he wealthy.

In spite of her feelings, Anne let herself be persuaded by Lady Russell and her father to break off their engagement. Wentworth goes off to the Navy, sad to lose Anne, but understanding, and Anne stays home with her father and sisters. The former lovers haven’t seen each other since.

And maaaaan – did I realize a couple of things about myself while reading this for the second time.

First off, the last time I read this book was 2008. (Also, in 2008, I read all six Jane Austen novels. I used to be such a good reader!) Masterpiece Theatre was showing all Jane Austen adaptations for their Classics season that year, and I thought, “why not?” And I remember watching this version of Persuasion – starring a not-quite-famous Sally Hawkins and Anthony Stewart Fucking Head playing Sir Walter Elliot! – and I was more focused on watching the series and getting through all six novels for me to take away Important Life Lessons.

This year (or, last year, as of this writing), I read the majority of the novel on the day I took the train to Boston to see the Arctic Monkeys, and I had plenty of time to learn things about myself.

FOR INSTANCE: I still have a voice in the back of my head that occasionally makes me think people are talking about me. Or having opinions about me. And while I recognize that that voice exists, and yes, I do realize I have a maybe-not-so-healthy dose of paranoia*†, I am not always successful in ignoring the voice.

*Fun Fact!: When you rearrange the letters in ALAINA PATTERSON, you get PARANOIA’S TALENT.

†When I was 6 years old, I was playing upstairs and could swear I heard my parents talking about me. So I raced down and confronted them. “ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT ME?” “No, Alaina, we’re not,” said Dad. “Okay,” I replied, and went back upstairs. A few minutes later, I came downstairs again and again asked, “ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT ME?” “No, Alaina, we’re not,” Dad insisted. I made the ol’ squinty eyes at him –

buffy suspicious face

– and went upstairs once more. And because even at the tender age of 6, I was aware of the Comedic Rule of Three, a few minutes later –

*stomp stomp stomp*


And instead of a smart-ass retort (which I definitely deserved at that point), Dad instead asked me, “Alaina, do you know what the word ‘paranoid’ means?”

And instead of yelling, Margo Channing-style, “I don’t even know what that means,” I reply:

“YES. It’s when your PARENTS ANNOY YOU.”

hunchback take a bow

Anyways. The point is that Anne allowed herself to listen to other people instead of following her gut (or, heart, I guess), and I am so glad that I don’t do that (much) anymore.

Anne still loves Captain Wentworth, so seeing him in society is a little trying. They are friendly with each other, but reserved. It also helps Anne a bit by seeing him interact with other single ladies (sorry for the earworm) who are hoping to marry the young Captain.

Eventually, Anne rejoins Sir Walter Elliot and her sister and Lady Russell in Bath, and Captain Wentworth shows up too (with another family – Wikipedia says it’s the Musgroves, and if Wikipedia says it, it must be true), so Anne and Wentworth are still forced to be in each other’s company. The youngest Musgrove sister, Louisa, is unattached, and appears to have caught the eye of Captain Wentworth. One day, the entire company visits a neighboring town, and Anne runs into her cousin there, William Elliot. William had broken ties with the Kellynch Elliots the year before, but William is taken with Anne.

On the way back into Bath (or wherever – apparently I got confused about where all this is happening, but you know me – not fixing things!), Louisa is flirting with Wentworth and walking along the top of a wall that borders a cliff. Louisa loses her footing and falls to the beach below, and suffers a head injury. Anne takes control of the situation, ordering people to call for a doctor and to keep calm in general. Louisa is taken to the nearby home of a friend of Wentworth’s, Captain Benwick. Wentworth stays at Benwick’s to keep watch on Louisa because he feels guilty and partly responsible for her fall. Anne doesn’t realize this, and believes that Wentworth has developed an attraction to the younger Miss Musgrove.

Meanwhile, William Elliot starts hanging out with the other Elliots, to Sir Walter’s great delight. Anne gets along with him well enough, but she doesn’t completely fall under his spell.

Look, I’ve written a lot of words which is basically paraphrasing the plot regurgitation that Wikipedia usually goes into. At the end of the novel, Wentworth – who had never fallen in love with Louisa, he just felt guilty about his part in her accident; she ends up engaged to Captain Benwick – overhears Anne talking about how women hold on to feelings of love long after hope of having it requited:

“I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as – if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” [p. 210]

And this is where Wentworth realizes that Anne still loves him, even after all those years.

dot heart eyes

So he writes her a letter. And lemme tell you, dear Reader(s), that letter is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever read:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. [p. 211]

clueless swoon

Between “You pierce my soul”, “Peace – I will stop your mouth”, and taking me to museums on dates, this blog is turning into a step-by-step guide to Dating Alaina. (And Dudes, if you could also be Peter O’Toole, wearing this exact outfit –

peter o'toole smoking

– that would be greeeaaaat. Now tell me I pierce your soul. Thaaaaanks.)

Does Darcy tell Elizabeth that she pierces his soul? NO. And it’s been too long since I’ve read Sense and Sensibility, but does soul-piercing happen in that book? I DON’T THINK SO.

Thus, I have proven my thesis: Persuasion is the best love story Jane Austen ever wrote.

Grade for Persuasion: 5 stars

Fiction: “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

orient expressI get my love of mystery novels from both of my parents. Dad still has in his bookcase the full anthology of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and quite a few Hercule Poirot mysteries. I had borrowed one book that had Murder on the NileAnd Then There Were None, and at least two other classic Poirot mysteries back in eighth grade, and I distinctly remember finishing And Then There Were None during that year’s educational assessment test (I finished early), and then when that was done I started reading The Pelican Brief.

Dad would also watch PBS’s Mystery! – the old version, with the introduction animated by Edward Gorey, and he loved the Poirot films where David Suchet played the Belgian detective. If you think I have OPINIONS on stuff (like Hannibal, or all of my many ~FEELINGS about James Bond), lemme tell ya – they stem directly from the many OPINIONS my dad has about Hercule Poirot. The ability to have OPINIONS is genetic, is what I’m saying.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of my father’s favorite movies in the history of everything. And not the one that came out last year with Kenneth Branagh – the one from 1974 with Albert Finney and practically every other big star at the time. We rented it years ago, and —

I was going to say, if Mom and Dad could ever figure out their DVD player, I’d buy it on DVD for a Father’s Day present, but then I remembered that they do have a TV-DVD combo in their camper trailer, and he may get some use out of it that way – but then I learned that it’s currently available streaming on Prime, so I need to remember to tell Dad that the next time I see him.

Anyway. For all of Dad’s love of Poirot, he didn’t have a copy of Murder on the Orient Express for me to borrow to read. And, in a complete non-surprise, neither did the Yarmouth Public Library?


So Mom was awesome and got it for me from the Brunswick Public Library, and then my sister bought a copy for Dad for Christmas, so everyone’s happy.

The story of the Murder of the Orient Express, briefly: Poirot is leaving Istanbul after finishing an investigation, and he’s called back to London to investigate something else. He runs into an old friend who’s a director of the railway and manages to upgrade himself to a first-class compartment. At dinner, Mr. Ratchett, an American traveler, approaches Poirot and asks Poirot to protect him, as he believes his life is in danger. Poirot doesn’t like Mr. Ratchett at all, and refuses to take the case.

That night, the train stops because an avalanche ahead has blocked the tracks. Also, Mr. Ratchett is found murdered in his locked room, with 13 stab wounds.

I’m not going to give y’all the solution – that’s what the book (or movies) are for. What I liked about Poirot is that he did all of his investigating by talking to people and making intuitive leaps. Sure, he investigated the crime scene and Mr. Ratchett’s body, so he has plenty of forensic knowledge, but the majority of the book read like a play – dialogue going back and forth, with Poirot asking questions and being able to squeeze answers from reluctant participants with nary an arm-twist.

If you’re unfamiliar with the locked-room mystery, you should definitely start with this one. It’s excellent.

Having said all that, the Kenneth Branagh version of the movie – if you decide to watch the movie before reading the book, and that’s totally fine, guys – but it doesn’t quite follow the plot. Yes, the solution is the same as in the novel, but Branagh (god love him) wants to add a bit more theatrics and effects to the plot. I mean, the bulk of the novel is Poirot sitting down, talking to suspects, and then discussing what was just talked about with his railway director friend. If it were a play, it could be staged very minimally, because there’s not a lot of action. So Branagh makes a suspect run away into the snow-covered mountains of Croatia and almost fall off a bridge, and there is at least one gunfight.

I had asked my dad last fall if he wanted to see Murder on the Orient Express. And Dad’s response was basically a big ol’ HELL NO.

Here’s a paraphrase of my Dad, after watching the trailer for the Branagh version (and yes, it’s spoken in the same tone of voice Alaina uses when telling people that The Revenant was a terrible, terrible film):

“There’s only ONE Hercule Poirot, and he was played by ALBERT FINNEY. Suchet was fine – but FINNEY WAS THE BEST. And look at those mustaches on Branagh – THOSE AREN’T WHAT THEY LOOKED LIKE. And Poirot doesn’t run, WHAT IS HE DOING?” *sigh* “No, Alaina, I DON’T want to see that movie.”

Cut to: Me, in the movie theater, muttering under my breath, “He was right, Dad would hate this. I can hear Dad now, saying ‘That’s not how it happened,’ just like when he and I saw Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. He’d be so disappointed.”

But when you take away the extraneous, Hollywood shit that Branagh threw in, the movie was still very good. I mean, film-wise, Branagh can do very little wrong in my eyes. (I’m resolved to no longer be mad at the fact that he cheated on EMMA FUCKING THOMPSON, QUEEN OF EVERYTHING.) The cinematography of the film was gorgeous, and I thought Branagh did a good job with the character of Poirot, mustaches be-damned.

Anyways. I liked Murder on the Orient Express, both the novel and the Branagh film. (It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the Finney portrayal that I’m not going to pass judgment on it, but based on Dad’s opinion, that’s also very very good.) If you like mysteries and haven’t read this one yet, you totally should.

Better double-check that your library has it first.

Grade for Murder on the Orient Express: 4 stars

Fiction: “My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne DuMaurier

my cousin rachelI picked this book up at the same time as An Untimely Frost. I was perusing all of the tables of paperbacks, as quickly as I could – when I go to Barnes & Noble on my lunch break, I really only have half an hour to spend, because driving to and from there eats up about fifteen minutes each way, thanks, traffic! – and at first for some reason I thought this was a previously-unpublished novel by Ms. DuMaurier? But apparently I thought Daphne DuMaurier only wrote two novels (Rebecca and Jamaica Inn), and didn’t realize she was as prolific as she was.

Because I love Rebecca so very, very much, I bought the book, and began reading it when I returned home from My Dear Friend Sarah’s baby shower.

My Cousin Rachel is set in an unknown time period, most likely mid-to-late 1800s in the Cornwall, England area (the southwestern-most tip of Great Britain). The book is narrated by Philip Ashley, adopted ward of his cousin, Ambrose Ashley. Ambrose takes Philip in after Philip’s parents die, and Ambrose raises Philip according to what he feels is best – sends Philip off to school (Eton, I think), then on Philip’s holiday he comes back and tends to the estate. Ambrose never feels like he needs to marry to have give Philip a feminine influence; his neighbors, Nick Kendall and Nick’s daughter, Louise, satisfy Philip and Ambrose’s social needs.

As Ambrose ages, his doctor recommends traveling to warmer climes in the winter. So Ambrose winters in Florence for a couple of winters. And then, one winter, Ambrose doesn’t come home: he has fallen in love with a widowed contessa, Rachel Sangalletti. Philip feels betrayed; he’s shocked that his love for Ambrose isn’t good enough to sustain Ambrose any longer.

Then, Philip receives a strange letter from Ambrose. Ambrose is ill, and all of a sudden, somewhat paranoid. He complains of terrible headaches, but comments that Rachel is tending to his needs. A second letter arrives later that summer, wherein Ambrose tells Philip of Rachel’s lawyer and friend, Rainaldi, who recommends a doctor for Ambrose to see.

Philip becomes evermore anxious and distrusting of the care Rachel is providing, and with Nick’s blessing, Philip travels to Florence to rescue his cousin. But when he arrives, Ambrose has been dead for a couple of weeks, and Rachel has fled the villa.

Heartbroken, Philip returns to Cornwall. He learns that Ambrose never updated his will, so Philip will still inherit the estate when he comes of age (turns 25). A few weeks after that, Philip receives a letter from his cousin Rachel – she has arrived in Portsmouth, and she wishes to meet Philip and see the estate before settling herself in London.

Philip invites her to the estate, as it is the only proper thing to do. He is resolved to hate her immediately, and relies on the kindness of Nick and Louise to ensure the estate is presentable. Philip spends the day of Rachel’s arrival canvassing the acreage, determined to not see her.

(I’m sorry that paragraph is so dramatic compared to the rest of the review – I’ve been listening to classical music to a] keep my concentration on this and b] I had a headache earlier and classical music can help, but The Ride of the Valkyries just started playing and apparently it’s making my word choice just as bombastic. I HAVE NO REGRETS [except the shouting, Alaina, ssshhhh].)

But when he meets Rachel after dinner, he is charmed by her quiet graces. She is very grateful to Philip’s hospitality, and seems to be devastated by the loss of Ambrose. Philip realizes he was acting immature, and resolves to be nicer to Rachel.

As his affection for her grows – and Christmas nears – Philip goes into the village, and removes the grand pearl necklace that belonged to his mother from the Ashley security box. Philip gives the pearls to Rachel, and she is enamored of them. But at the party where they both present Christmas presents to the estate staff, Nick and Louise comment on the necklace. Nick asks Rachel to be sure to return the necklace the next day, to have it returned to the bank. She readily acquiesces, with no hard feelings. Philip is hurt, and claims to be the rightful owner of the necklace and he’s all, I do what I want! And Nick reminds him not until April when you turn 25, boy

Then Philip finds a last, lost letter among Ambrose’s belongings that Rachel brought from Florence, in which Ambrose sounds the most paranoid of all the letters. He outright accuses Rachel of embezzling money to buy things, and he also suspects she’s poisoning him.

Philip must decide who to believe: Rachel, who is incredibly sincere and guileless, or Ambrose, the guardian he trusted over everything else.

I was not drawn to this novel as much as I was to Rebecca. I also don’t know if my attraction to Rebecca stems from the movie, which I watched first, or if because the narrator of Rebecca is a nameless female (save for “Mrs. De Winter”) so that it’s easier for me to fall into her story than Philip’s. It also might be because Mrs. De Winter is so innocent and naive, whereas Philip has many moments of suspicion and paranoia, that I see more of my own instincts in Philip than Mrs. De Winter, and therefore are more likely to find escapism in Mrs. De Winter’s tale than Philip’s.

(Also, My Cousin Rachel doesn’t have a Mrs. Danvers, and that’s a liability.)

I also watched the movie when it was released on Redbox late last summer. It stars Sam Claflin as Philip and Mrs. Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, as Rachel. I know the movie did not stray too far from the book. I also know that the movie didn’t rewrite the ending of the book (unlike Rebecca, and yes, I still blame the Hays Code and no, I still don’t know if I prefer the movie or the book). But that’s about all I can say about it, because it was one of those Redboxes that I threw on and then got bored or looked at my phone and did other things and basically tuned the whole thing out.

It looked pretty, though. And again, it did not stray from the book, so, yay faithful adaptation?

If you like psychological thrillers, you’ll probably like My Cousin Rachel, even though it’s not really “thrilling”. As you read, you need to decide: is Rachel a victim of circumstance, paranoia, and perception? Or is she a black widow? After reading it and watching the movie, I’m still not entirely sure of my decision.

Grade for My Cousin Rachel: 3 stars

Fiction: “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe

mysteries of udolphoA few months ago, my friend Erica read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I had read it a few years ago, and it was getting time to make my selection for Spring Classic Literature Month. Well, I was perusing the shelves of the Yarmouth Library after returning Babayaga, and came across The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. This book was actually mentioned by the characters in Northanger Abbey numerous times, as it is the favorite novel of the lead character Catherine. And Northanger Abbey was in the back of my mind, and this book was free and I’d never read it before, so … hey! Synergy!

Please feel free to add this title to the list of Bad Decisions Alaina’s Made In Life.

Look, I’ve read a lot of classic literature in my day, but oh man – this was like, 700 pages of nothingThe Mysteries of Udolpho is supposed to be the first Gothic novel, and I kept waiting for some suspense? But after reading Red Dragon or, fuck it, Dracula, this book was a snooze fest.

As evidence, please look at the fact that it took me ten weeks to read this. TEN FUCKING WEEKS.

So the plot, as she is horribly, horribly overwritten: Emily St. Aubert lives with her father in the South of France (I think). After her mother dies, she and her father take a tour of the rest of the south of France as part of their bereavement tour or whatever. On the trip, they meet a chevalier (traveling knight) named Vaillancourt. Emily and Vaillancourt fall in love on, like, page 109, and then Emily’s father dies and Emily gets sent to live with her Aunt, Madame Chernon. Madame Chernon disapproves of Vaillancourt, so she forbids them to be together. Then she relents because she finds out Vaillancourt has wealthy connections. Meanwhile, Madame Chernon is wooed by Count Montoni, who appears to be some suave Italian motherfucker. Well, Madame Chernon agrees to marry Count Montoni, does so by stealing the wedding plans of Emily and Vaillancourt, then forbids Emily from continuing her relationship with Vaillancourt. Count Montoni then removes his new wife and Emily to his palace in Venice, where we come to learn that Montoni? is actually a dick.

He’s a leader of the dreaded Italian Bandits, which would make a great name for a rock band. But really, he’s a thief and a murderer. He attempts to sell Emily’s hand in marriage to a Count Morano, but when that deal goes belly-up, he takes the entire “family” up to his palace in the region known as Udolpho.

The Udolpho palace is full of secrets – it’s like Gretchen Weiners’ hair. Emily and her chambermaid, Annette, get into all sorts of adventures. And when I say “adventures,” I mean “forty pages of Annette rambling and Emily saying she doesn’t want to hear it but then says okay sure, I’ll listen, and then they walk through the halls of the castle and see weird shit which will all be explained as not paranormal whatsoever in about five hundred pages.”

While they are imprisoned in Udolpho, Madame Chernon passes away – oh, shit, spoiler alert, I guess – and then Montoni pressures Emily into giving up the land she inherited from her aunt. But Emily refuses, because she’s moral or whatever. Anyway, one night she thinks she hears the voice of her beloved Vaillancourt, but it turns out that it’s another dude from her region of France, who has been imprisoned by Montoni. Not too much later from that, Emily, her maid Annettte, this other dude, and Annette’s boyfriend Ludovico escape from Udolpho and end up at the mansion of a friend named … George, I guess. (I’m wrong, but it’s an easy name to make up and the book’s been back at the library for a month now and I’m not going to look it up.) George had apparently run into Vaillancourt in Paris, and Emily’s boyfriend had managed to turn into a bit of a gambler, so George tells her to cut him loose because he’s a bad egg. When Vaillancourt returns to plead his case, she refuses him.

But after another hundred pages of back and forth, Emily realizes that Vaillancourt was only gambling to make money to help pay off her debts to her servants and other shit, so his morality is restored and they end up married or whatever.

See?  It took me not even 1000 words to give the major points of the plot. Why was this book nearly 700 pages long?

Well, it would have been shorter if Mrs. Radcliffe knew how to use the comma properly.

No, for reals. And while I recognize that this was written nearly three hundred years ago and common grammatical structure has evolved, THERE ARE ENTIRELY TOO MANY COMMAS IN THIS BOOK.

I decided to turn it into a game after I read this sentence:

The immense pine-forests, which, at that period, overhung these mountains, and between which the road wound, excluded all view but of the cliffs aspiring above, except, that, now and then, an opening through the dark woods allowed the eye a momentary glimpse of the country below. [p. 224]

I MEAN. So, as I continued to read – because I don’t give up on books, not anymore – I decided to see if I could find the sentence in the novel that had the most commas.


Beneath the dark and spreading branches, appeared, to the north, and to the east, the woody Apennines, rising in majestic amphitheatre, not black with pines, as she had been accustomed to see them, but their loftiest summits crowned with antient forests of chesnut, oak, and oriental plane, now animated with the rich tints of autumn, and which swept downward to the valley uninterruptedly, except where some bold rocky promontory looked out from among the foliage, and caught the passing gleam. [p. 413]

That is one entire sentence, folks. It has 14 – FOURTEEN – commas in that one sentence. That’s … entirely too many commas.

Let’s see, what else can I talk about – oh, how about how Annette the Maid is so annoying, even the saintly main character Emily hates her? Okay, maybe “hates” is a strong word, but she does delight in poking fun at Annette who is too stupid to realize it.

“Down this passage, ma’amselle ; this leads to a back stair-case. O! if I see any thing, I shall be frightened out of my wits!”

“That will scarcely be possible,” said Emily … [p. 232]

“But the story went round, and many strange reports were spread, so very strange, ma’amselle, that I shall not tell them.”

“That is stranger still, Annette,” said Emily … [p. 238]

Another thing I love about reading old books? What was probably very tame and normal back then sounds really dirty now.

Madame La Comtesse had often deep play at her house, which she affected to restrain, but secretly encouraged … [294]

“I have myself seen the Chevalier engaged in deep play with men, whom I almost shuddered to look upon.” [507]

“Deep play” is defined in the notes as “gambling,” which is such a buzzkill.

Oh, and Ms. Radcliffe attempts to break the novel up by inserting poetry. And if one of those poems have a verse that sounds dirty, well, Alaina’s going to take note of it:

Neptune for this oft binds me fast
To rocks below, with coral chain,
Till all the tempest’s over-past,
And drowning seamen cry in vain. [181]

Overall, the entire book suffers from histrionics which were probably considered the height of literature three hundred years ago, but today reads horribly. I can step back and appreciate it for what it was during its time, but am I ever going to read this again? Hell no.

Grade for The Mysteries of Udolpho: 1 star

(the star is for the That’s What She Said moments the book provided; that’s it.)

Fiction: “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

house of mirthSo after I finished Nickel and Dimed, it was October. And looking back – because that’s the type of idiot I am – I realized that October was typically a month where I would dig out a classic work of literature, for one reason or another (see: Brave New World, which killed two birds with one Banned Book stone; and The Mayor of Casterbridge). I decided – rather capriciously, to be honest – to create another Theme Month. And so, from here and in perpetuity, let October be henceforth known as: The Fall Classic.

(Which is also, apparently, the other name of the World Series. But whatever, right?)

I had purchased The House of Mirth years ago, after watching the Gillian Anderson-starring film adaptation. It has been so long since I’ve watched that movie that I could no longer remember the plot, and since none of the rest of the classics I own inspired me, I decided to read this one. Also, if you don’t like Gillian Anderson, I don’t think we can be friends.

The House of Mirth, first and foremost, is a tragedy. The introduction lets us know up front that this tale will not have a happy ending. Our story takes place after the turn of the last century in New York City’s society, and our tragic heroine is Lily Bart, the orphan of parents who lost their money through reckless spending. When her parents pass away, Lily is sent to live with her maiden aunt in the hope of finding a suitable husband.

For in that day and age, the only acceptable future for a woman of Lily’s pedigree lay in achieving a good, solid marriage. But while Lily wants – nay, requires – the financial stability a marriage would bring, she desires her own independence more.

When we first meet Lily, she is dashing across Grand Central Station to meet up with her longtime friend, Lawrence Seldon. She does have another train to catch that evening, a train that will take her to the country home of her other dear friend, Judy Trenor. But during the layover, she’d love to have Seldon get her up to speed on his Americana collection, in the hopes of using that knowledge to get Mr. Percy Gryce, an incredibly wealthy nerd and another guest of Mrs. Trenor, to propose marriage to her.

This is one example of Lily’s smarts: she knows exactly which avenue to take in order to get men to notice her and her flirting skills are unparalleled. She can easily maneuver among the elite caste of New York society to which she aspires to belong. Sadly, her downfall is her inability to compromise her convictions. Because just when her future with Mr. Gryce is all but secured – all she needs to do is accompany him to church and he will propose to her – she oversleeps. So she decides to wait for him to return to the Trenor house via the country lane, and when she runs into Selden, she decides to take a walk with him rather than wait for Mr. Gryce.

Why doesn’t she marry Seldon, you ask? Well for one, he’s never proposed to her. Secondly, while she does care for him, and he for her, she is well aware of her fiscal shortcomings and doesn’t want to burden him with them. Furthermore, Seldon has stated that when he does marry, he wants it to be for love.

So after this walk with Seldon, she completely loses her chance with Mr. Gryce. Lily borrows the gig and goes to pick up Judy’s husband, Gus, at the train station. During the ride home, Lily alludes to her money troubles, and Gus offers to invest her funds in Wall Street for her. She readily agrees, and in almost no time at all, Gus hands her a check for $9,000.

But then Gus starts cornering Lily at gatherings, and trying to get her alone. Rumors start flying, and Lily tries her best to avoid him. But when she receives a note from Judy, telling her to visit after 10 one night, and when Lily arrives she learns that Gus sent the note and Judy’s not even in town, Gus makes it explicitly clear that he gave her $9,000, that he never invested her money, and now he expects repayment in the form of an affair. Lily stalks out, and her exit is seen by Selden, who puts two and two together and doesn’t go see Lily the next day as he had originally requested.

Lily’s other main foe in her story is Mrs. Bertha Dorset. Mrs. Dorset had had an affair with Lawrence until he broke it off or she got bored. One day, a servant found letters from Mrs. Dorset, sent to Selden, and she sells the letters to Lily. Lily holds on to those letters, partly hoping to use them in order to get a leg up on Mrs. Dorset, but also holds on to them so they don’t get out, as Selden is also involved.

When Selden doesn’t show up, Lily is greeted by another acquaintance, Mr. Rosedale. Mr. Rosedale aspires to great social heights, and having Lily Bart on his arm would be an amazing get for him. He would get his social acceptance – Mrs. Wharton clearly identifies Mr. Rosedale as Jewish nearly any chance she gets, and therefore makes it clear that only WASPs typically succeeded in New York society – and Lily would get her financial stability. Lily hesitates, because he’s Jewish and she doesn’t love him, and in the middle of her hesitancy the Dorsets invite Lily to accompany them on a European tour.

And why does Mrs, Dorset invite Lily, of all people, to Europe? Why to distract her husband while she runs around with another young dude. Lily is completely oblivious to Mrs. Dorset’s goings-on, and is a true friend to Mr. Dorset. Until Mr. Dorset tells Lily that he knows everything, that Bertha’s shtupping whatever the dude’s name was, and he plans on getting a divorce. Lily manages to run into Selden in Monte Carlo and she tells him what she knows, and his heart melts once more and urges her to get out of town immediately. But Lily decides to wait until the morning, but that is one night too late; that very night, Bertha announces to everyone, including Lily, that Lily is not returning to the yacht. And just like that, any social cache Lily had is gone.

Lily returns to New York as her aunt passes away, and the hopes of receiving her legacy are dashed when the will is read and all of her aunt’s inheritance save ten thousand dollars goes to her cousin. Lily is removed from her home, and goes to be a secretary for a new-money up-and-comer. But when the woman’s morals clash with Lily’s own, she leaves her employ and goes to work as a milliner’s apprentice.

That’s Lily’s tragedy – her morals are in complete contradiction to Society’s. At any time, she could have blackmailed Bertha into supporting her through the use of her letters. She could have explained the Gus Trenor situation to Selden – that she thought he had invested her money, not given her a loan with sex as his repayment plan. She could have married Rosedale when he asked her instead of running away to Europe. But in not compromising her morals to Society’s needs, she doomed her own ability to live.

Huh. Apparently, the title comes from a line from the Bible: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecc. 7-4). (I said “huh” back there because I’m not a Bible reader.) But the significance of the title now makes a whole lotta sense. Poor Lily Bart is truly a fool, as she struggles to maintain a foothold in Society – the true House of Mirth. And her foolishness and inability to truly become one of the horrible, cold women within that House is her downfall.

Grade for The House of Mirth: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald


I can’t believe I have two reviews I haven’t written yet. I finished two books in May, and haven’t even put … er, figurative pen to figurative paper about them. What is wrong with me? (Don’t answer that.)

Let’s begin with May’s theme (arbitrarily decided upon with no outside input, sarcastic thanks to all of you who answered my survey) (but no seriously, legitimate thanks to the three of you that did respond, that really meant a lot), Classic Literature. And since I’m fond of hopping on bandwagons (give me a stair-car and I can rule the world!), I figured I’d just go ahead and kill a lot of birds with a minimal amount of stones (maybe mistresses with cars?) and read The Great Gatsby.

Holy shit, I have got to stop using parenthetical phrases. That above paragraph is disgusting. My junior-year English teacher would be rolling over in her grave if she was dead.

Okay, show of hands: do I really need to talk about the plot of Gatsby?  I mean, everyone’s read it at least once, right?  Or seen the movie?  No?  *sigh* Okay, give me a second while I throw up a big SPOILER ALERT.

Look, you guys know I don’t do this often — I’m a ruiner.  It’s practically my job.  So if you are saving the ~handwave~ big mystery about Gatsby for the 2 p.m. matinee at your local thee-a-ter, skip the next paragraph, okay?  Okay.

We all know that the story is told by Nick Carroway, second cousin to Daisy Buchanan, married to the abusive adulterer Tom Buchanan, and Nick lives next-door to Gatsby, who is in love with Daisy and has been since he knew her before the war.  He loves her so much that he completely recreated himself from a poor boy to a rich man, all in an attempt to win her back.  And it works — until she drives over her husband’s mistress with Gatsby’s car, and then the mistress’s husband kills Gatsby while he’s lazing in his pool.  In the end, Tom and Daisy don’t change whatsoever, Nick goes back home to the Midwest, and high schoolers are made to read this book until the end of time.

Hey, welcome back, culture-illiterates!  (Sorry, I don’t know why I’m being so mean right now.  All of a sudden, I’m super-sarcastic.  Apologies.  Apologies, all around.)

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about some of the other stuff.  Now, I should mention that if you’re looking for a tie-in to the movie, look somewhere else; I haven’t seen it yet.  If you’re lucky, it might show up on Movies Alaina’s Never Seen in a couple of years.  I have seen The Hangover Part III, and if you want to talk about the allusions it made to Shawshank Redemption, HAVE AT IT, and also, SHUT UP.  So instead, I’m going to talk about what I took away from Gatsby this time, compared to the last time I read it, which was in high school, which was a <i>long</i> time ago.

All I can remember about Gatsby was this writing exercise we had to do: take the first seven paragraphs of Chapter 3 (where Nick Carroway describes the first Gatsby Party he attends) and using the same stylistic choices, create your own scene.  I remember describing an amusement park, and I’ll bet that if I look deep enough into the detritus of my life office, I may still have a copy of the paper somewhere (grade: A).  I also remember discussing the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and how that signified hope, and that still resonates.

There have been some criticisms of the book from friends and strangers alike who complain that none of the characters in Gatsby have any redeeming qualities.  That is true.  Gatsby was a shiftless layabout who only became an enterprising individual after he fell in love with Daisy and recognized that the only way to be with Daisy was to be rich, because Daisy is flighty and conceited and vain and awful.  And Gatsby’s way of making money was to (theoretically, it’s never actually proven) be a bootlegger during Prohibition.  Tom Buchanan marries Daisy but doesn’t love her, abuses her, and cheats on her.  Daisy doesn’t love Tom but stays with him because women didn’t divorce men in those days, and also, because she’s grown complacent in her life: he has money, she’s taken care of financially, she doesn’t need to worry.  Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend and Nick’s sometimes lover, is accused of cheating at pro golf but doesn’t get kicked out, and pretty much is there to provide backstory.

The only person we can somewhat identify with is Nick, because he’s our eyes and ears: he’s our narrator.  We are viewing this story through his eyes, and while we may have questions (was Gatsby a bootlegger?  Did Tom really hit Daisy, or did she come by those bruises naturally?  Did Daisy ever tell Tom that Gatsby wasn’t driving?), Nick doesn’t ask the questions and the answers aren’t offered to him, so we can only speculate.  But Nick is still a reliable narrator, and we can trust his views and perceptions, because we really have no other alternative.

Plus, he says things like this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that.  In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.  [1]

Essentially, Nick suffers from the same problem with which I am also afflicted: we both have faces where people can tell us anything. No, seriously. Do you know why my hair is so long? It’s full of secrets. Because everyone tells me everything. So look, unless we are true friends — and True Friendship means I’ve held your hair back while you pray to the porcelain god, or I’ve trailed a boyfriend for you to make sure he is going to football practice, or you’ve yelled up at my window at 8 a.m. to make sure I’m awake, or I’ve promised to share the profits from our joint book venture, The Illustrated Guide to Universally Known Hand Gestures — I don’t want to know details of your sex life, or what you think about your boyfriend that I’ve never met, or — and y’know? Even if I do know you that well, I still don’t want to know that stuff. What happens in the marital bedroom stays in the marital bed, guys, and I’m glad that you’re open with that type of stuff, but I’m just too apathetic to whatever.

The above rant is brought to you by: Store Set. Store Set. That time when everyone gets loopy and feels they need to keep the conversation going.

ANYWAY. So we know from Paragraph 3 that Nick is a reliable narrator. So we can believe him when he feels that Tom is an asshole wearing a Person Suit. We can trust him when we get the impression that he’s unamused with Daisy’s antics. We can trust that the lavishness that surrounds Gatsby is true, and also that Gatsby did it all to impress Daisy.

Because it’s no coincidence that he built his mansion directly across the bay from her. It might be coincidence that Nick happened to rent the house next to Gatsby and that Daisy is his second cousin, thereby providing the ‘in’ that Gatsby would want.

So what are we going to do about all of these unlikeable characters? Some criticism I’ve read about Gatsby tries to say that because the characters are despicable, we shouldn’t rate the book as classic literature. Well, I hate Holden Caulfield, but I recognize that The Catcher in the Rye is another book that deals with heavy themes and deals with them well — until Mark David Chapman really latched on to it. I mean, Catcher is about adolescence, the journey from ignorance to enlightenment, and also — and maybe I’m reaching here, because that’s another book I haven’t read since high school — how people present themselves to different people. The duality of man, par exemple. (Sorry, I’ve been watching Mad Men. How can a show where nothing overly dramatic happens be so damn dramatic?)

Conversely, there are a lot of despicable characters that do get redeemed. I think the difference here is that Gatsby dies before he can change. And that’s another tenet of great literature that, actually, Gatsby seems to eschew: characters start the novel at one place, emotionally, physically, spiritually. And no matter what you read, whether it’s a romance, a classic novel, or a sci-fi title, at least one of those characters have to experience change. Gatsby doesn’t; he dies. Daisy and Tom certainly don’t change. The case could be made that Nick attempted to change by moving to New York and dealing with all of these nouveau riche idiots, and then reverted back to himself by moving back home. Nick’s journey – and he’s the narrator, after all – could be retroactive. In this, Fitzgerald turned the idea of the novel as a journey on its head. Rarely do characters start out one place and move backwards.

Finally, through all of this discussion of reduction and moving backwards and unlikeable characters, the feeling that I left Gatsby with is, remarkably, one of hope. Gatsby — arguably for all the wrong reasons — pulled himself up from poverty by enlisting in the army for World War I, and turned opportunities into advantages. He ended up very wealthy through his own efforts. Unlike Tom and Daisy, whose wealth was inherited and unearned. Gatsby wants to do right by Daisy; unfortunately, Daisy is too childish and stupid (there; I said it) to want to give up her comfortable bland life to be with Gatsby, because the truth that Gatsby can’t accept is that Daisy doesn’t love him anymore. Daisy doesn’t love anyone. But Gatsby loves passionately; that can be seen through his endeavors. He was just too blinded by a dream to recognize the reality.

And doesn’t that happen to all of us? We have all fallen into passionate crushes or love affairs, and it’s not until reality sinks in — whether it’s that you finally spend the night with him and you realize he snores worse than Snorey McSnoreson (and folks, that’s a deal-breaker right there), or you realize that you like him more than he likes you — whatever it is, the dream implodes, you’re back to harsh reality; the autumn of breakups, if you will.

Gatsby, for all of his deviousness and unlikeability, is still a multi-faceted character. And my final “final” thought is to remind everyone that “Great” doesn’t refer to his personality. “Oh, Gatsby; he’s so great.” No. That’s not what the Great Gatsby means. The definition that Fitzgerald was intending was the following: Unusual or considerable in degree, power, intensity, etc.

And I think that that’s something we can all agree on.

Grade for The Great Gatsby: 4 stars

Fiction: “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott

Dudes, I tried. I seem to have vague memories of reading the abridged version back when I was a kid, and wanted to revisit that when I began reading this, oh, over a month ago, but … I do not remember Little Women being so preachy.

Maybe I shouldn’t have read the introduction, where it is revealed that Ms. Alcott wrote the book specifically as a moralizing tome for young, impressionable ladies. I’m not impressionable anymore (thank God), so it just wore on me.

Where was the sweet romance between Jo and Laurie that people keep talking about? Why is everyone so nice to each other? Even Amy apologizes to Jo after her temper tantrum.

I got to where Jo cut off her hair so Marmee could go to Washington. I can’t read anymore. It wears on me, heavily, and I don’t have the energy to force myself to read a book I’m not enjoying just because it’s ‘classic American literature.’

So. I quit. Next up: Christopher Moore’s Fool, a retelling of King Lear from the Fool’s point of view.

Grade for Little Women: No stars ( + Chuck Bass Disapproves, because, really? Chuck Bass is the antithesis of Little Women)