“The problem with current [marriage] vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered, so as to avoid rage and resentment.” (Alain de Botton)

Last week I got an invite to a friend’s wedding. I know you won’t judge me, my bookish friends, when I say that I was pleased to get the invite and looking forward to it, but only became truly excited when I saw it was taking place in the birthplace of a favourite poet – roll on October!

Anyway….. me being a selfish friend aside, this prompted me to think that June is traditionally a month for weddings and so a suitable theme for this week.

Firstly, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946), which tells the story of twelve-year old Frankie over a few sultry days in late August, around the wedding of her older brother:

“She knew that her only brother, Jarvis, was to be married. He had become engaged to a girl in Winter Hill just before he went to Alaska. Frankie had not seen her brother for a long, long time and his face had become masked and changing, like a face seen underwater. But Alaska! Frankie had dreamed of it constantly.”

Frankie is a misfit – very tall for a girl (I thought she sounded entirely normal but then I was 5’10” by age 14), with hair she’s just shorn into a crew cut, kept company by her housekeeper Berenice and her cousin John Henry, who is half her age.  Her mother died in childbirth and her father is a distant presence. She is deeply unhappy and pins all her hopes on her brother and his new wife taking her with them when they leave.

McCullers creates the stultifying atmosphere perfectly:

“The clock ticked very slowly on the shelf above the stove, and it was only quarter to six. The glare outside was still hard and yellow and bright. In the backyard the shade beneath the arbor was black and solid. Nothing moved. From somewhere far away came the sound of whistling, and it was grieving an August song that did not end. The minutes were very long.”

I don’t think it’s putting too much of a modern interpretation on the novel to say a dominant theme is about gender and identity. Frankie has a gender-neutral name and does not conform to a feminine ideal. John Henry wears a dress. Markers of identity shift: Frankie’s name changes to F Jasmine in the second part of the novel. Both children feel their ideal world would not contain gender binaries:

“She planned it so that people could instantly change back and forth from boys to girls, whichever way they felt like and wanted. But Berenice would argue with her about this, insisting the law of human sex was exactly right as it was and could in no way be improved. And then John Henry West would very likely add his two cents’ worth about this time, and think that people ought to be half boy and half girl”

At core though, it is a tale of a sad, lonely, misunderstood child who desperately wants to be seen and heard, and believes the wedding day will give her this chance:

“And since it was the day when past and future mingled, F Jasmine did not wonder that it was strange and long. So these were the main reasons why F Jasmine felt, in an unworded way, that this was a morning different from all mornings she had ever known. And of all these facts and feelings the strongest of all was the need to be known for her true self and recognised.”

What Frankie needs to recognise is what she already has: a deep intimacy with Berenice and John Henry who both love her.

“The three of them sat silent, close together and they could feel and hear each other’s breaths.”

The Member of the Wedding is an atmospheric, touching story that has many layers to it. It’s a tightly contained novel (188 pages in my edition) which still manages a remarkable richness of characterisation and setting.

The Member of the Wedding was a Broadway production and then a film with the same actors in 1952. I’ve not seen it but I believe it was acclaimed, although the claustrophobic quality probably worked better on stage:

Secondly, Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker (1962). Like The Member of the Wedding, the story centres not on the couple but on someone with a strong emotional investment in the proceedings. Cassandra is writing her PhD at Berkley and has to return home because her twin sister Judith is marrying a doctor she met in New York. The sisters are exceptionally, unhealthily close and Judith’s move to New York had sent Cassandra into a tailspin. At the start of the novel she is considering the Golden Gate bridge in term of a suicide vehicle:

“I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I’d go home, attend my sister’s wedding as invited, help hook-and-zip her into whatever she wore, take over the bouquet while she received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it, and hold my peace.”

Their mother is dead and their father self-medicates with alcohol. It becomes apparent that the twins’ claustrophobic relationship was an extension of the elitist, exclusive culture their parents encouraged. But Judith has realised that this was not a helpful way to live:

“as a family we’d always been something of a closed corporation…we had our own pinnacle to look down from. But when we went away to college we couldn’t quite keep it the way it was on the ranch.”

Judith has dared to want the ordinary: to be out in the world, to get married and to set up a home. The few days when they are both back at home will bring the twins’ differing needs into direct conflict.

“[I] stood up and looked down at Cass and knew I loved her, but that it was not the same thing as being married and feeling married, and that now it never could or would be. I felt very solemn about it, and solemn words came into my mind. ‘Whom God hath split asunder, let nothing join them together. Ever.’ “

Cassandra is an intriguing character: bright, funny, acerbic, incredibly vulnerable, and monumentally selfish and self-centred. Her obsession with Judith is in many ways an extension of self-obsession:

 “To be like us isn’t easy, it requires constant attention to detail. I’ve thought it out; we’ve thought it out together. I’ve tried to explain to my doctor that it’s a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridged. And the bridge is the real project.”

All the same I was rooting for Cassandra – not to get what she wanted, because that was a continuation of the destructively claustrophobic relationship with her sister – but to find a way through, for all involved.

Cassandra at the Wedding is a psychologically astute, funny and sad novel. Dorothy Baker balances the differing tones expertly; I’d definitely be interested to read more by her.

To end, The Dixie Cups in remarkable 1980s dresses (were wired hems a thing?), and looking like they’ve not bothered aging since their 60s heyday:

Novella a Day in May #29

It’s thanks to this mini-project that I finally read Eudora Welty, as I had two of her novellas in the TBR. I’m glad I did, as the latter of these two has definitely whetted my appetite for more of her work.

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The Robber Bridegroom (1942, 185 pages)

I enjoyed this reworking of The Brothers Grimm tale which Welty sets in eighteenth century Mississippi. Clement Musgrove arrives back home:

“As his foot touched the shore, the sun sank into the river the colour of blood, and at once a wind sprang up and covered the sky with black, yellow, and green clouds the size of whales, which moved across the face of the moon.”

With this foreboding change in the weather, he finds himself sharing a room with real-life keelboater Mike Fink, and Jamie Lockhart, a gentleman robber. Lockhart saves Musgrove’s life, and so is invited back to his home, which he shares with his horrible wife, who predictably is wicked stepmother to the beautiful Rosamond. Rosamond isn’t perfect though:

“As for Rosamond, she did not mean to tell anything but the truth, but when she opened her mouth in answer to a question, the lies would simply fall out like diamonds and pearls.”

The tale unfolds along familiar lines, with theft, mistaken identity, illicit love and people thought to be dead when they’re not, all in the surrounds of a forest. While I thought The Robber Bridegroom was vividly told and entertaining, I wasn’t sure what Welty was really doing with the tale. Rosamond is given sexual agency which would be a departure for many fairytales; and it’s grounded in a historical reality which adds to the mythology around the Southern states pre-Civil War. It’s an interesting tale but I felt Welty could have done more with it, pushed it a bit further into something truly original but still grounded in fable.

“The only thing that could possibly keep her from being totally happy was that she had never seen her lover’s face. But then the heart cannot live without something to sorrow and be curious over.”

The Ponder Heart (1954, 132 pages)

This, however, I adored. It featured a truly idiosyncratic, distinctive narrator and was funny, unsettling and compulsively readable.

Edna Earle Ponder lives in Clay County, Mississippi, and is proud of being a Ponder and running the town hotel. She is telling the tale of her Uncle Daniel to a silent interlocutor.

“I don’t run the Beulah Hotel for nothing: I size people up: I’m sizing you up right now. People come here, pass through this book, in and out, over the years – and in the whole shooting-match, I don’t care from where or how far they’ve come, not one can hold a candle to Uncle Daniel for looks or manners. If he ever did thing to be sorry for, it’s more than he ever intended.”

Her Uncle Daniel dresses all in white and has a tendency to give away money. His father tries to get him committed; Daniel has a lovely time in the institution and his father ends up committed instead. Then there is an ill-fated marriage to the wonderfully monikered Teacake Magee.

“As for Uncle Daniel, he went right ahead, attracting love and friendship with the best will and the lightest heart in the world. He loved being happy! He loved happiness like I love tea.”

Teacake Magee proves impervious to Uncle Daniel’s charms after 2 months and they split up (we’re never quite sure why) and then Daniel marries Bonnie Dee without his family knowing.

“I wish you could have seen Bonnie Dee! I wish you could. I guess I’d known she was living, but I’d never given her a real good look. She was just now getting her breath. Baby yellow hair, downy – like one of those dandelion puffballs you can blow and tell the time by. And not a grain beneath. Now, Uncle Daniel may not have a whole lot of brains, but what’s there is Ponder, and no mistake about it. But poor little Bonnie Dee!”

And from this marriage the trouble starts. Welty builds her story expertly: you know something bad has happened, you don’t quite know what, by whom or to whom. As it is revealed, it is totally believable and an awful comic tragedy, told in the inimitable style of Edna Earle.

“I’m the go-between, that’s what I am, between my family and the world. I hardly ever get a word in for myself.”

She’s vain and arrogant about her position as a Ponder; she looks down on people and is racist; she’s appalling in lots of ways but Edna Earle spins a good yarn.

“What Uncle Daniel did was just bestow his [love] all around quick – men, women and children. Love! There’s always somebody wants it. Uncle Daniel knew that. He’s smart in way you aren’t, child.”

I was truly sorry to leave The Ponder Heart behind.

“Babies don’t need a vacation, but I still see them at the beach…” (Steven Wright)

The rest of that title quote is: “It pisses me off! I’ll go over to a little baby and say ‘What are you doing here? You haven’t worked a day in your life!’” Unfortunately right now I’m working every day of my life and that pisses me off no end.  Being the eternal student means any spare spondoolicks go towards debt repayment, so no holiday for me for the foreseeable future. As a bibliophile, the obvious answer to this is a vicarious holiday via the printed word.  Here I am reading in my local park:

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Just kidding – I don’t like Walt Whitman.

Firstly, I’m having a staycation with The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. I love golden age detective novels, and this is one of the wonderful re-issues under the British Library Crime Classics series.  Set in the coastal Cornish village of Boscawen, the Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr Pendrill are avid consumers of detective fiction, meeting every Monday for dinner and to divide the spoils of their library parcels:

“heaven forbid that the shadow of any crime should ever fall across the grey-stoned cottages, the gorse dotted commons and cliff-girdled seas of his beloved parish. He preferred to get his excitement second-hand and follow the abstruse machinations of purely imaginary criminals”

Reverend Dodd doesn’t get his wish however, as someone murders the dastardly Julius Tregarthen, bringing the pragmatic Inspector Bigswell to the village, in direct contrast to the Reverend’s more idiosyncratic detective style:

“it’s always struck me that the detective in fiction is inclined to underrate the value of intuition. Now, if I had to solve a problem like this, I should first dismiss all those people who, like Caesar’s wife, were above suspicion, merely because my intuition refused to let me think otherwise. Then I should set to work on what remained and hope for the best!”

This approach seems highly dubious to me, but then even the level-headed Inspector has his own prejudices, as he records in his notebook:

“Three shots entered the room at widely scattered points. The garden is fifteen feet in length. This argues a poor shot.  Probably a woman.”

Between the two of them however, they of course manage to find the villain.  The Cornish Coast Murder is not the greatest detective story ever written, but it is entertaining and well-paced, and has a surprising sympathy for the murderer – this is not a clear-cut case of right/wrong. Bude went on to write other cases set in picturesque tourist traps  – The Lake District Murder, The Sussex Downs Murder.  He didn’t change his pseudonym to a local town each time though, disappointingly (John Ambleside? John Bexhill-on-Sea?)  I may take another holiday later in the season to Bude’s other murderous locations…

Secondly, and in direct contrast to the cosy Cornish amateur detecting, The Shore by Sara Taylor. I can’t claim this as a relaxing vacation read, despite the beautiful cover:

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The Shore tells the lives of islanders off the coast of Virginia. The chapters are told from the viewpoints of different characters and move back and forth across time from the nineteenth century to the twenty-second, showing how people, bloodlines, events and actions are all interwoven. Taylor’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful but her gaze is unflinching:

“The Shore is flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow…We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the maps.”

Life on The Shore is not easy – the people are brutal and brutalised, violent and destructive – particularly towards women. At times the unrelenting harshness of the lives depicted made this a tough read, but Taylor’s writing is so original, so tight and accomplished, that I felt myself drawn onwards, like one of her characters unable to stop themselves:

“[I] have been easing back into the landscape like putting on a favourite coat. I hate this place and I love this place and I don’t know if I want to go as far away as possible or ever leave.”

The Shore is its own place, with its own rules.  There are ‘witches’ – women bearing the scars of domestic violence who medicate those in need with traditional remedies from the land – and storm bringers, young girls with gifts inherited from their grandfathers:

“She finds a breeze, gives it a twist, and pulls the particles across the bay like teasing knots out of her sister Lilly’s hair.  It is a gradual process, and her pace slows as she waits. The ambient moisture begins to bead and grow heavy , a million pregnant bellies.  Then, she brings it down.”

The Shore is truly astonishing. It’s definitely one to read only when you’re feeling robust enough to take it, but I wholeheartedly recommend it.

 “The stars are smeared across the sky, not the pretty scatter that most people imagine, but a crush of millions in the beautiful, pure darkness”

For me, this sentence sums up The Shore.  It is striking, unsettling, the imagery is unexpected and there is a hint of violence – all from the point of view of an individual who knows how powerless they are but still carries hope.

To end, the obvious choice of Madge (who appeared in Desperately Seeking Susan, as did Steven Wright who started the post – this was, of course, complete coincidence brilliant planning on my part) in a video where the budget appears to have been maxed-out on matching bangles for all concerned…these were simpler times, people.  All together now: “Holidaaay! Celebraaaate!” :