Monday, December 7, 2015

Lightening Up - Just a Tad

The third book in the simply outstanding Neapolitan trilogy by Elena Ferrante has taken a decidedly dark turn. "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay," moves well into the adult years of the two women, Lena and Lila, who have been competing for each other's undivided attention since they were children. Their friendship has devolved into a power play in which Lila, at turns cruel and needy, withholds the approval and love that Elena so desperately needs from her. 

Reflecting the times in which the novel takes place, Ferrante writes passionately about the women's movement in Italy, the advent of the pill (which Elena's husband refuses to let her take), and especially about the difference between the more educated, enlightened areas of the north, Milan, Florence, etc. where Elena lives vs. the southern area, Naples and its surrounds, where Lila works under inhumane conditions at a sausage factory.

Ferrante also tackles the political climate, as Lila's communist acquaintances put her in an untenable position at the factory, when they protest against the mob owners in an effort to unionize the workers. The dark underbelly of Italy is on full display.


In a search for a lighter weekend read, I happened upon "Meeting the English," a smart, wisecracking send up of the British. This is a sinfully funny yet thoughtfully observant debut novel by Kate Clanchy, a young lady wise beyond her years, and it has the best opening pages I've read in years.

Meeting the English

Phillip Prys, once respected novelist and playwright, still being taught in schools but definitely on a down hill trend, is about to have a stroke, upending the lives of his wives, past and present, not to mention his kids and his agent. As Phillip languishes in a catatonic state in a wheelchair set up in the living room of his mansion on Yewtree Row, everyone scrambles to be first in line for the estate of the soon to be deceased Mr. Prys.

The only thing they haven't counted on is the bright, shiny young Scot, Struan Robertson, who's been hired down from the central highlands for a summer of caretaking of the great writer. Only seventeen, he is the original cockeyed optimist. After years of caring for his own Da, crippled with MS, Struan knows his way around a wheelchair, diapers, and the elderly. He has the confidence of the young, fully believing that Phillip will eventually return to the bosom of his family.

A lovely young fellow like Struan would find it impossible to believe that the family could care less. Phillip's former wife, Myfanwy, (don't ask) is an estate agent who can't wait to get her hands on the house, while his current wife, Shirin, forty years his junior, acts caring but has an artistic career that's blossoming, one she'd like to press on with.

The kids are complicated. Jake, the golden child, needs money to feed his hidden drug addiction and Juliet, unhappy and neglected by both parents, finds solace in food. What a delight it is to watch Struan walk into this dysfunctional mess, take charge of Mr. Prys, stand up to Jake, give Juliet the attention and direction she so desperately needs, and fall in love with Shirin, all within the  course of one long, hot summer in 1989 London. A great weekend read.

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