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.