Holiday Reading

The weather’s come out hot here, thick, sticky heat ideal only for relaxing with a book. So I thought I’d round up the novels I’ve read recently that are perfect easy, summer reads.

Rona Jaffe – The Best of Everything. Penguin reissued this cult classic after it was featured in an episode of Mad Men (Don Draper’s reading it in bed in an attempt to find out what women want). It follows the fortunes of four young women who have come to New York to build careers and, with any luck, find a man they can marry. It’s set in 1952, an on-the-cusp era when young women were beginning to find work an intriguing alternative to marriage, although marriage was unquestionably the ultimate goal. Most of the action centres on a big publishing firm, very Mad Men-ish in its organisation. Caroline is a graduate who unexpectedly finds herself gripped by career ambition and welcomes it as a respite to grieving a love affair that failed; April is the naïve country girl who experiences a disastrous romance with a playboy; Gregg is an aspiring actress whose relationship with an up-and-coming director goes seriously wrong, and young divorcée, Barbara, tries to manage her fraught life as a working single mother.

This was considered a scandalously truthful novel when it first came out, and it still packs an entertaining punch with its office romances and company politics. It’s also pretty upfront about the way the decks are stacked against women, at a time when a girl’s ‘reputation’ was as important to her life plan as her pretty face, whilst her brain was still considered something of an irrelevance. I really enjoyed this – the writing is crisp and cool, not chick-litty at all and it was very gripping. It was a commission and apparently Rona Jaffe felt it would be a success because the secretaries in the typing pool who were typing up her drafts kept pestering her to reveal what happened next. Only one gripe and that’s please, Penguin, will you do something about the quality of card used for the covers of your books? You can’t read them without causing a really nasty wrinkling effect.

Deborah Lawrenson – The Lantern. Deborah is a special blog friend of mine, and so I was so happy to hear that her novel had been chosen for the TV Book Club, which pretty much assures it will be a huge success this summer. This is a time-slip novel, set in a beautiful but run-down property in the south of France. The present day story is a clever modern re-write of du Maurier’s Rebecca: young Eve (not her real name) becomes involved with a moody and secretive musician, Dom, and allows him to persuade her to start a new life with him in Provence. At first it’s an extended honeymoon, but as the cracks in their relationship start to appear, Eve is tormented by her lack of knowledge about Dom’s first wife, Rachel. Her state of mind isn’t helped by interfering new friend, Sabine, and by the strange apparitions occurring around the house, notably a lingering but untraceable fragrance, and a lantern carried by an unearthly hand. These phenomena create the link to the story set in the past, which concerns the previous owners of the house they inhabit. This part of the story is narrated by Bénédicte, an elderly Frenchwoman, who is being visited by the ghosts of her long-lost siblings. Her eldest sister, Marthe, became blind when she was still a young girl, but this unfortunate event becomes the springboard for her career as a famous parfumière. Her brother, Pierre, is a nasty piece of work, whose evil actions will cause the family much grief. I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers, but the narrative moves back and forth between present and past as both stories unfold, and then unexpectedly collide.

This novel is really all about the gorgeous descriptions, which are lush and evocative, transporting the reader to la belle Provence. It probably sounds like there’s quite a bit of plot, but it’s the descriptions that you notice and that pack the action out with rich sensuousness. If you like the sound of this, I recommend you have a look at Deborah’s blog, where she often quotes parts of the novel. Be warned though – this novel will make you simply long to live in France.

Mark Mills – House of the Hanged. Staying in the south of France (as I wouldn’t mind doing in the least) this is a slick and well-written spy novel, or at least it’s a novel with gentle thriller elements that revolve around unresolved spy games in the past. Tom, ex-secret service agent, has built a new life for himself in the beautiful haven of Le Rayol, a glamorous community of artists and refugees. But it’s 1935 and there are rumblings of impending war across Europe that mean old loyalties and old scores are being unearthed. When an assassin breaks into his home and tries to kill him, Tom realises that his past has returned to haunt him, and that it’s only a matter of time before further attempts on his life will be made. To complicate matters, Le Rayol is temporarily full of the people he loves the most, and who have offered him what sense of family he has; Leonard, his one-time boss in the Secret Intelligence Service, his prickly, difficult wife, Venetia, and their grown-up daughter, Lucy, Tom’s goddaughter who is, unbeknownst to him, in love with him. Quite why he is being targeted, Tom doesn’t know, but it eventually becomes clear that a long ago betrayal in Russia has something to do with it, and that a much more recent betrayal, by someone close to him in the present, has put his life in sudden, urgent peril.

The word I keep coming back to for this novel is ‘slick’. It’s very cleanly and lucidly written, the scenes are beautifully timed and organised and the plot unravels very neatly. I don’t think Mark Mills can really challenge the great spy writers like Greene and le Carré, but this is an extremely pleasant way to pass a few hours, very nice brain candy when you want a book with which to escape and relax.

15 thoughts on “Holiday Reading

  1. Such thick weather, like you say. Could we not have a proper summer again, where it’s hot but not muggy all the time? Aaaannnd now we’ll have rain, because I’ve complained won’t we?;)

    All of these sound good to me right now. Summer does make me rather put off all that slicing, literary prose and I’d much rather have something with a bit of description to wade in at this time of year. I want my reading to match my pushing through the heavy air, but to be much more pleasant.

  2. I think “The Best of Everything” was made into a movie and I think I have seen it. As I recall, there was a choice between career or marriage and the underlying message was that one could not have both.

  3. Ugh–hate humidity–I guess no one is exempt from it this year I’m sorry to hear! A good book does help keep your mind off it and I like the sound of all three. I alread have the Jaffe on hand and had Deborah’s on my wishlist, but now I see I need also add Mark Mills book to the list, too. I like smart, entertaining reads–they’re about all I can handle at the moment. I’m reading The Rules of Civilty at the moment and the two women characers work in a typing pool as well, by the way.

  4. I’m reading The Best of Everything right now and enjoying it very much. I identify! With the girls coming to New York to work in publishing as is their dream. Except, of course, that I don’t have any of that nonsense sexual harassment they have to put up with. It reads in parts like “I Was a Playboy Bunny” rather than a book about publishing. :/

  5. Thank you so much for the review, litlove! Glad you enjoyed the summer wallow. Mark Mills’ book is already on my pile – just my kind of warm weather read too. And to name-drop, but for all the best reasons, I met him once at a party and can confirm he is a seriously nice person as well as a lovely writer. Now to order the Jaffe!

  6. I ordered the Lawrenson the other day as I thought it will make for great escapist reading and I like atmospherical novels set in the South of France. And now I have to order another one… I really like what you write about Rona Jaffe’s book.

  7. These all sound really good, and perfect for August. I read a different Mark Mills, The Savage Garden, and it was quite entertaining and fun. Not great, great, but it didn’t need to be!

  8. Dear LL, Well, this entry was just the thing I needed! We’re off on a very road trip that will sap our weekend for a family wedding but that’s ok – we get to see some extended family and celebrate with the newlyweds though we’ll spend most of the time on the road, going and coming. Anway, I love reading in the car, even aloud to HM as he drives. I cannot believe I have not read, in fact, did not even know about Rona Jaffe’s book but can’t wait to find it tomorrow – library, bookstore or Nook – whichever one can dish it up first! and THE LANTERN intrigues, also. I do love me some “France” , especially in books/literature. so, that treat lies in store as well.

    Thanks for this! Hope you and yours are enjoying the summer days!

  9. The Best of Everything sounds particularly interesting. Am impressed that you can still read so voraciously in such weather. And of course our weather is the exact opposite – cold and rainy.

  10. Jodie – oh the weather! Yesterday it poured here, but was still muggy, and today it has no idea what it’s doing. I don’t think I’ve put the right clothes on in weeks! I always think of August as the dog days of summer and I often need something to read that doesn’t require chewing, if you see what I mean. 🙂

    Ruthielle – I think that choice was a reality for women in 1952 – we can easily forget how far we have come and how fast. I had no idea a film had been made, though. How interesting!

    Danielle – longing to know what you make of The Rules of Civility! My copy arrived the other day. August is always a heavy, ponderous sort of month and one in need of comfort reading! This is the second Mark Mills book I’ve read and both have been just slick, easy, pleasurable reads, very undemanding. I appreciated that!

    Lilian – I could not agree more, my friend!

    Jenny – and this is when we link hands with the sisterhood and give thanks for all the changes that we’ve made to cultural ideology. No, thankfully no woman has to put up with the sort of behaviour that the women in Jaffe’s novel are subjected to!

    Deborah – I’m so glad if you’re pleased – it’s a lovely novel and you wrote it beautifully. Wow – fancy having met Mark Mills! He looks very handsome in his author photo (not that I’m shallow or anything 😉 ). I hope you enjoy the Jaffe, too. It’s a very good summer read.

    Caroline – I’d be very interested to know what you think of any or all of these novels! Hope you’re having a relaxed summer of reading.

    Doctordi – sweetie, I remember EXACTLY how hard it is to get any time for solitary pleasures with a small child. Of course, the child is a delight in itself, but still, that doesn’t mean the taste for a bit of quiet reading goes away. Sending hugs.

    Dorothy – as ever you hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly how it is – not great, but doesn’t need to be! You are so good at putting your finger on it!

    Oh – I do hope you have a lovely, lovely trip and that the wedding is a delightful occasion. I really like the image of you reading out loud to HM – how companionable! I know it’s very hot with you at present and I think any of these novels would make for relaxed, undemanding reading. Would love to know what you make of them if it comes to that.

    Pete – I’ll let you into a secret – the Jaffe I read ages ago but hadn’t got around to reviewing, and Deborah’s book I read a couple of weeks back too. I don’t know where the time goes! That being said, I am of course reading voraciously, just other things! 😉

  11. Sounds like you have been doing some fun summer reading. Has the hot and sticky reached you too? It has been the most humid summer on record here, something we are not very happy about where we pride ourselves on cold and snowy.

  12. I’m very much enjoying The Rules of Civility, but there is something about it–I can’t quite put my finger on it that is making me wonder if I am missing something–I think I was expecting the story to be about one thing and it is about something else…not sure. But I do like it and am curious to know what others think of it! Read it soon. 🙂

  13. Stefanie – I’ve been reading the reports of the heatwave in America – I feel for you! It seems mean to be made to get accustomed to freezing temperatures for a long winter, only to replace them with humid heat! We usually have a few days of oppressive heat in August. Yuk. But it doesn’t usually last very long, thank goodness!

    Danielle – you know when I’ve flicked through it, it hasn’t looked quite as I expected it to…. I really will try to get to it very soon!

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