Book Reviews

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)

The novels of Elizabeth von Arnim are often marked by their dry wit and charm, plus a touch of autobiography. Vera obliquely refers to the author’s disastrous second marriage to an Earl, but unlike her references to her first husband, who she referred to as “The Man of Wrath,” Elizabeth saw no humor in the situation.

And so, Vera is arguably her darkest novel, a psychological thriller that in a unique way predicts Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Vera, in this case, is also a dead first wife whose presence continues to be felt in the mansion that the second wife begins to inhabit. And like the nameless heroine of Rebecca, Lucy Entwhistle is hopelessly naïve as the story begins. And as it unfolds, she becomes obsessed with the departed wife.

Taken under the wing of Everard Wemyss, a widower, Lucy soon begins to understand that her husband, who she hoped would provide security, is a sociopath who wants nothing less than full control over her and her every move. Elizabeth von Arnim was unlucky in love, and in Vera, she expresses fully her dark view of the institution of marriage. Following is a review of Vera from the year in which it was published, 1922. Apparently, she was still attempting to publish anonymously, as she had from the start of her career with Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Read More→

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Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim (1898)

Elizabeth and Her German Garden was published anonymously 1898. Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Australia, continued to publish simply as “Elizabeth” following the success of this, her debut novel. Told in the form of a diary, the book is written by a protagonist who, like the author, chafes against the conventions of marriage and motherhood. The husband is referred to as “The Man of Wrath,” which seems comical on the page, but reflected how Elizabeth felt about her real-life spouse, Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin.

The fictional Elizabeth finds consolation in the beauty of the garden, and maintains her sanity by ignoring the conventions of the day. “I believe all needlework and dressmaking is of the devil, designed to keep women from study,” the heroine of the novel proclaims. Read More→

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A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (1956)

From the United Press review of A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (1956):  A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (translated from the French, Un Certain Sourire)  is that rare delight, a second novel that fulfills the promise of the author’s first. Young as Miss Sagan is, her writing is imbued with a maturity so naturally presented as to seem not in the least surprising.

Here, as in Bonjour Tristesse, Miss Sagan’s heroine is a young girl acting out of purely selfish motives, and finds herself embroiled in something far beyond her capabilities. Read More→

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Two 1928 reviews of Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Quicksand  by Nella Larsen was the first novel by this author associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Published in 1928, the storyline was quite autobiographical. The main character, Helga Crane, is like Larsen the mixed-race daughter of a Danish mother and a father from the Caribbean. And like Larsen herself, wherever Helga’s journey takes her, she never feels quite at home in her communities or with her identity.

The widest departure Larsen took from her own life was having Helga wind up with no profession, bearing a passel of children. The author, never prolific enough to have a paying career as a writer, worked as a nurse and librarian throughout her adult life, and never had children. Read More→

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The Three Daughters of Madame Liang by Pearl S. Buck (1969)

The Three Daughters of Madame Liang by Pearl S. Buck is a 1969 novel in the tradition of her colorful and vivid China stories. This one is takes place in China around the time of the cultural revolution. Madame Liang is the proprietor of a fashionable restaurant in Shanghai, serving the top echelon of the city. She sends her three daughters to America to be educated, with varying and dramatic results. Grace, Mercy, and Joy are torn between loyalties to their home country and their adopted one. Here’s a review of this engaging novel from the time of its publication date:

From the review by Louise Zerchling of The Three Daughters of Madame Liang by Pearl S. Buck in the Sioux City Journal, August, 1968: There’s no one in America who has a deeper comprehension of and compassion for Asian culture that Pearl Buck, who’s knowledge of the China of the past enables her to understand the China of today. Read More→

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