It is 1942 and Charlotte Gray travels from Scotland to help in the war effort in London. She soon meets Peter Gregory and although he is reluctant to become attached to anyone because of his job they are soon in a relationship of sorts. When Gregory, a pilot, goes missing on a drop off in France, Charlotte is devastated and throws herself into her own war work, a mission to deliver a man to a destination in France. Having completed this part of her task, Charlotte chooses to stay in Occupied France in the hope of learning of Gregory’s fate. She is quickly swept up in the world of the Resistance and the secretive nature of this movement, where she learns of the difficulties facing those in France, from the French Jews being deported to Poland to those trying to keep their head down and survive the war.
Charlotte Gray has been on my shelf for years, but I have never really paid it much attention, which is why I put it on my TBR Pile for 2014. I am really happy that I did this as it is well worth a read. To begin with I found it hard to get in to, but I think this is more to do with work and the craziness of November as opposed to it being a tricky book. However I found the closer to the end of the novel I got the more I wanted to stay awake a little bit later to finish it. The last third was particularly gripping, especially in its depiction of the deportation of French Jews, including two young boys. It was heartbreaking to read of their journey and although their fate was never explicitly mentioned, it is certainly not hard to imagine.
For a book I spent a fair few weeks reading I feel as though I can’t write much in this post. I finished it a few days ago and since then have had a parents’ evening and a Christmas Party so I think my brain has gone into shut down mode. It is a book I would recommend and I do feel a Reread of Birdsong in the pipeline, especially as I think there was a passing remark made towards the main character from that novel. What this review has taught me is that in order to write anything that makes any sense or even remotely links back to the book, I need to write a review pretty soon after finishing.
The twelfth read in my TBR Pile 2014
I have completed my 2014 To Be Read Pile (master post). There have been a few changes and hiccups along the way, but I have read twelve of the books from my list and I am feeling pretty smug about the whole thing right now. My list is written below, but some of my highlights are:
This is a tough one as lots of the books on there were brilliant reads, but in my current mood if I had to choose one it would be World Without End as it was a mammoth read, but I loved every page of it and was completely wrapped up in the world of Medieval England.
The book I was most worried about was The Six Wives of Henry VIII mainly because it was the only non-fiction read on my list and I don’t read non-fiction very often. I read the book in stages, which certainly made it more manageable, but I also found my reading of historical fiction and watching of TV programmes like The Tudors helped with my understanding as I already knew the major characters.
Easily The Stranger’s Child . I just did not get along with the narrative and found it such a hard book to get into. I don’t know if this was because I read it when I was on a school trip or because I just didn’t engage with it; I am inclined to think it was the latter.
The One I Didn’t Get Round To
Elizabeth Taylor’s Short Stories. I find short stories quite difficult to read as they aren’t something I read very often. I am a little annoyed I didn’t get round to reading any of these (although there is still some time this year) but I never quite felt in the mood.
Overall I loved taking part in the TBR Challenge and I loved it so much I am taking part again in 2015. My list has already been complied and is here and I look forward to the ups and downs of reading this list and another fabulous reading year.
1. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier (Kindle)
2. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
3. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
4. Regeneration by Pat Barker
5. The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Kindle)
6. Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier
7. World Without End by Ken Follett
8. Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulks
9. The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
10. Patience by John Coates
11. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H.Lawrence
12. Elizabeth Taylor Short Stories (this might be cheating as it is short stories, but I am aiming to read at least half of them).
Reserve – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
I went through a phase of buying Evelyn Waugh’s novels and although I really enjoyed A Handful of Dust the last one I read, Scoop I absolutely hated and found myself slowly plodding through it, waiting for it to be over. I would say this had put me off, but I added Decline and Fall to my TBR pile and was determined to make my most recent Waugh experience a good one.
Decline and Fall starts with the protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, sitting in his room at the fictional Scone College, Oxford, where he is unsuspectedly targeted by the Bollinger Club and is soon running through the college grounds without his trousers on. This leads to him being sent down from Oxford and disowned by his guardian. To make ends meet Pennyfeather takes a job at a boys’ school in Wales. It is at this school that Pennyfeather meets the glamorous mother of a pupil and leaves to tutor her son and later become engaged to the wealthy woman. Unfortunately, on the morning of his wedding he is arrested for trafficking prostitiutes; a business he has nothing to do with, but is all his future wife’s. Of course he ends up in prison, but through various means the novel comes full circle and Paul Pennyfeather ends up studying back at Scone College.
I am very pleased to state that Decline and Fall reminded me why I enjoyed Waugh’s writing in the first place. The whole novel is a series of unfortunate mishaps, each one leading Pennyfeather to a slightly bigger fall than the one before. His writing is pure satire and throughout the novel he pokes fun at the ridiculousness of the British upper classes during the interwar period. I love how certain characters kept reappearing at different points of Pennyfeather’s life and that he wasn’t the only one suffering from a run of bad luck. I do think some of my favourite chapters focused on the school in Wales, mainly because of the stark contrast to modern schooling. It isn’t so much the use of the cane, but the idea that the teachers didn’t need any real qualifications and that they just turned up and taught whatever the hell they liked. Perhaps one of the biggest similarities to modern teaching is when Pennyfeather is told he needs to organise Sports Day the day before it is due to take place; I’m not saying I have to organise an entire day of sports at the drop of a hat, but I certainly know how it feels having something like that sprung on you.
Decline and Fall is not the best novel I have read all year, but I am glad that it has reminded me why I liked Waugh’s writing in the first place. I could even be tempted to pick up Madresfield a book about the house behind the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited.
I had hoped this would count towards my Reading the Twentieth Century, but it was published in 1928 and I already have a book for that year.
Decline and Fall does count for my TBR Pile 2014, so now I only have one book to complete my 12 books for the year.
Tracy Chevalier’s novel takes its title from a painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and it is this painting that forms the focal point of the novel, or rather the process of creating this painting that Chevalier centres on. Griet is a sixteen year old who leaves her family home and goes to work as a maid for the Vermeers. At first she shows little enjoyment for her new life, apart from the time she spends cleaning her master’s studio. Soon she is mixing the paint and catching the eye of her master’s benefactor, which ultimately leads to her portrait being painted.
Before I started reading Girl with a Pearl Earring I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about picking it up. As is the way with my last few reads I have just randomly picked it up and I am pleased to say I enjoyed it rather more than I was expecting. The novel is told from Griet’s perspective as she leaves her family, who have been driven to poverty by her father’s accident in a tiling factory, and takes on the responsibility of providing for those left at home. Her narrative is easy to follow and engaging and you are quickly swept up in life in the seventeenth century Netherlands and Griet’s everyday life with the Vermeer family, from washing laundry to running errands, from trips to visit her family to a growing relationship with the son of a local butcher. It could be seen as a mundane and normal existence if it want for her relationship with her master, Vermeer.
Vermeer’s benefactor, a lecherous old man, wants a painting with Griet. This sparks jealousy from her master who refuses, leading to him painting a solo portrait. It is clear throughout that Griet is in awe of her master and tenses at his every touch. It is almost sweet reading about her ‘crush’ on Vermeer, perhaps reminiscent of every teenage girls’ crush on some slightly more grown up and glamorous figure in their life. Vermeer’s jealousy of his benefactor leads the reader to suspect something might actually happen between him and Griet, right until the end I was convinced something would. The tension between the two hinted at some romance. His insistence that she be painted alone, the way he protected her against his family all led to this outcome. But I underestimated the ego of an artist. As soon as Vermeer had what he wanted, he was gone. Only what he wanted wasn’t necessarily what I expected.
This is a tale of jealousy, from all sides and all characters, envy and the nature of relationships. I had no idea what this novel would be about, especially as my copy only has critic’s praise, and not a blurb, on the back, but I am glad that it was a narrative I could engage with and enjoy. Griet is a likeable, albeit naive, girl who is caught up with the differences between her new life and her former one and you can’t help but emphasise with her plight and realise how awful life might have been for some maids, especially if their mistress took against them. I can’t say it has been one of my favourite reads of the year, but it is a good read and a lovely easy one for my return to school.
TBR Pile 2014
Reading the Twentieth Century