Catching Up With Reviews

The Blind Contessa’s New Machine

BlindContessaItaly, the nineteenth century, and the young contessa, Carolina Fantoni, is facing triumph and disaster: imminent marriage to the local heartthrob, Pietro, and the steady but unmistakeable failing of her sight. Carolina is landlocked in her own experience; she is as unsure why Pietro has chosen her above all the other eligible young women, as she is unable to make her loved ones believe her when she tells them she is going blind. Her parents and her fiancé all hear what they want to hear. Only her friend, the eccentric inventor, Turri, listens to what she has to say and takes her seriously. Only he has the sensitivity – and Caroline comes to believe, the love – to understand how she needs to be treated. When blindness sets in after her marriage, and Pietro simply turns jailor on her, asking ‘What does it matter where you are if you can’t see?’, Turri helps to broaden her world by creating for her a special machine that enables her to write letters.

In just about every review you’ll ever read of this book, the words ‘like a fairy tale’ are going to appear, because the prose is steeped in the qualities of elegance and indifference that characterise the genre: vivid imagery combined with emotional coolness and an atmosphere of dreamlike distance from reality in which anything might happen. And yet this novel is based on historical truth and the actual existence of a Pellegrino Turri who invented the typewriter in order to help a blind friend. It’s in the places where Carey Wallace manages to unite her discordant elements that this book really takes off; the section in which Carolina loses her sight, for instance, is brilliantly done. The fairy tale quality suits admirably well the strange world Carolina inhabits as she gets used to her blindness, and animates Turri with his peculiar, often ludicrous inventions. But it’s tricky for the author to figure out quite what to do with the love affair between Turri and Carolina, when she wants all her characters to be sympathetic. Pietro, whilst incomprehending, does love Carolina, and the author lacks the ruthlessness with her characters and situations that give fairy tales their emotional and moral punch. But this is nevertheless a charming and intriguing novella, exquisitely written, rich in imagination and invention, a study of sadness in splendour.


Lucky Break

lucky break1992, London, and the start of a new term at Drama Arts and nervous students assemble to be put through the wringer by the pretentious and sadistic Patrick Bowery. There are the beautiful people: Dan Linden who aspires to nothing less than Hamlet, and Charlie Adedayo-Martin who knows exactly where her looks could take her. And there are the also-rans, Nell, dumpy but tenacious who fears she will never be cast as anything other than a maidservant, Scottish Pierre who talks a good game that doesn’t quite translate into ability, and strange Eshkol whose full make-up doesn’t hide his emotional imbalance. Covering three chunks of time from the early 90s to the present day, Esther Freud follows the fortunes and misfortunes of her aspiring actors through the bizarre world of stage school and the even more bizarre world of the acting profession. Her students stumble through pitiful early parts, devastating auditions, the difficulties of finding an agent, sudden, overwhelming success and the slow, debilitating death of dreams. This is essentially the story of Nell, though, a young woman who doesn’t have the beauty that would give her an unfair advantage, but who has ability and determination and who simply cannot give up on her hopes for that elusive lucky break.

I loved this novel and didn’t want it to end. It was everything I might have wanted a novel about drama school students to be. And given that Freud attended drama school before becoming a writer, and is married to an actor, I figured it was pretty authentic. The writing is really good, easy, vivid, clever, and the sudden skips in time occasioned by the three parts of the novel gave it the feel of time as experienced by actors – all those long breaks in which nothing happens and then periods of great intensity when the work is finally there. And overall it was a brilliant portrait of the rackety, uncertain life of the actor, whose talent can only do so much when compared to the sheer luck of whether the face fits. The reader gets a strong impression of a life of great highs and lows, into which ordinary domesticity can only be shoved awkwardly.

I was surprised when I went online to read the reviews how many criticisms there were of this book that it didn’t go deep enough, and was too easy a read. I felt that a lot of the subtlety of the novel had been missed by this response. What I liked best about the book was the way it played off the superficiality of the acting profession – its cynical exploitation of beauty and talent, and the peculiar absurdity of being an adult pretending to be someone else – with the genuine love and passion that the experience of acting inspires, the sheer magic that it can create and confer. Yes it does have a happy ending, but attentive readers will know that it is only an ephemeral moment, one that has the force of the miraculous, but will inevitably crash down to banal earth the next morning. That’s the contradiction that all actors must learn to embrace and endure. Well, anyway, I thought it was a delight.


20 thoughts on “Catching Up With Reviews

  1. The second book sounds really interesting – I love it when authors can effectively capture “a scene”, and usually it’s because they’ve spent some time in that atmosphere. I like having that inside story.

  2. I read something by Esther Freud a long time ago, I think. This sounds good to me, especially having been to drama school myself eons ago. Thanks. Another one for the wish list.

    • Oh yes, I remember you saying that now. Well I would certainly be interested to know what you make of it. I do like Esther Freud, have read several of her novels and enjoyed them all. I think she writes very well.

  3. Esther Freud has written one of my favourite novesl of all time “Gaglow” and I’ve read a few of her others I liked as well. I need to read this. I think it sounds wonderful.

    • I really like her too and, good news, I still have Gaglow to read. Yay! I think if you like her, you are pretty sure to like this one. Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  4. I think hell just froze over…or maybe it’s just the polar vortex…or an alignment of Jupiter with Saturn (is that even possible?) but my tiny Islands Library has Lucky Break! Which, of course is MY lucky break because your review makes me want to read it right away. Thanks Litlove.

    • Poor people suffering from the polar vortex need all the Lucky Breaks they can get, Grad! I think you might quite like this – I think you’ll be moved by the ending (but let me know, either way!).

  5. What an interesting pair of books in one post! It sounds like the first one had more potential than it delivered which is a shame. The second one just sounds like good old fun.

    • It was still good, though, the first one. You know how some flaws seem to matter less than others in books and don’t spoil your enjoyment? Well, it was a bit like that. But yes, both interesting books!

  6. I am definitely looking for a light, fun read – but also with some intelligence and subtlety. I remember enjoying Hideous Kinky (but not much about it at all.)

    • I often wish I had a list somewhere of guaranteed entertaining books that don’t insult the intelligence, because there are regularly times across the year when that’s what I want to read! I’d love to know what you think of this one, Denise.

    • Ah how about that! I struggle with all my library deadlines, which is atrocious really as I have a couple of months to read those books in. Sigh. Still, they can always be loaned out again. Would love to know what you think of this.

  7. So, two more for the wish list. Esther Freud is someone I keep meaning to read–collecting her books, but then never quite getting around to her, though I know you have suggested other of her books to me. I like the idea of a drama school student–I’m not quite sure why but Monica Dickens has been on my mind lately and I’d like to reread Mariana–another story that touches on theater life. The novella looks quite nice, too!

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