The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Fiction – print. Scribner, 2014. 320 pgs. Library copy.

Eighty-five year old Addie Baum recounts her life story to her twenty-two year old granddaughter beginning as a teenager in 1915 and ending with her current affairs in 1985. The American-born daughter of poor, Jewish immigrants living in Boston’s North End, Addie’s desires to become an independent and educated woman are often spurned by her father and mother. The local Sunday club for young ladies offers Addie the opportunity to take classes in English and spend time with people her own age outside the city at Rockport Lodge, and the eventual marriage of a local shirtwaist factory owner to her older sister (and, later, her oldest sister) affords Addie a job and a means of economic escape.

One thought keep running through my head as I read this book: does any elderly person tell their life story in perfect chronological order without deviations? I once “interviewed” my grandfather for a class about when he learned about the Holocaust and, instead, we ended up a long discussion about how he met my grandmother, his time in Afghanistan, and, finally, his childhood living in the Dust Bowl. Not at all in order. Not at all an answer to my question. I doubt Addie’s perfect recollection and timeline would have bothered me as much as it did had the novel been written in third person, but the first person narrative perfect preservation of suspense as to who she marries and how she escapes her family’s tenement rung false with me.

The novel relies far too much on stereotypes and common archetypes – the aloof father who turns to religion after a painful loss, an immigrant mother who controls her daughters because she is afraid of all the differences between America and her homeland – to really stand out in my mind. Addie appears to chafe against the traditional expectations of her family longing for a more “American” experience, but even those problems are neatly wrapped up with the end of each chapter.

For a novel spanning several decades, I found it odd that major events in American and Boston history, including World War II and the Great Depression, are largely glossed over. Only the flu pandemic of 1918, which admittedly is often forgotten in historical fiction, leaves a lasting mark on this family, but even losses from that event barely linger in the family’s mind as the narrative quickly moves forward.

The reason why I stuck with the novel for so long was not because of a great affection for Addie, but because of my interest in her sister, Celia. The young woman appears to be mentally unstable yet her mother and father still marry her off to a man they don’t entirely approve of with tragic consequences.

Addie tries to link her sister’s suicide to her working as a child laborer in a sweatshop upon arrival in the United States and her eventual husband is a passionate advocate for child labor laws. But this connection is so subjective because Addie never works in a factory (other than as a secretary) so the reader never sees these conditions, never experiences the horrors she suspects her sister went through. There are other novels – the American Girls series for juvenile readers comes to mind – that do a far better job showing how awful child labor in the early twentieth century than this novel does.

The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir

Nonfiction – print. Ballantine Books, 2010. 464 pgs. Purchased.

Subtitled “The Fall of Anne Boleyn”, Weir focuses on how Anne came to lose her head on May 19, 1536 (the first English queen to be executed) and why the same man who broke with Rome in order to start an entirely different church in order to marry her was so quick to sign her death warrant.  Rumors as to why Anne fell from grace abound, and many of them have begun to be taken as fact thanks to Hollywood and popular fiction: an incestuous relationship with her only brother as fictionalized in Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, a miscarriage (Anne’s second) of a deformed but male child as fictionalized by both Gregory and Showtime’s “The Tudors”, a sixth finger as a mark of witchcraft and devil work, and a long list of lovers making her guilty of treason.

Largely maintaining the nineteen day timeline between Henry VIII abruptly leaving the May Day festivities and Anne’s beheading, Weir diligently dismisses each of these rumors in turn laying  out a detail case for her rejection of each theory as the basis for Anne’s death. On Anne being guilty of adultery and, therefore, treason, Weir explains how the structure of court would not afford ladies, especially the queen, the opportunity to engage in an affair.

The Tudor court was largely separated by the sexes and, without the help of at least one of her ladies, Anne would not have been able to clandestinely meet another man. (This is also why nonfiction and fictional adaptions of Anne’s life show her (and her sister, Mary) being positioned in front of the King by her father and uncle, the Duke of Norfolk.)

Anne’s former sister-in-law was sentenced to death for helping Henry’s fifth wife (and Anne’s cousin), Katherine Howard, meet with her lover, Thomas Culpepper. Yet while four men were convicted of having an affair with Anne, none of her ladies were suspected, tried, or convicted of helping her. Weir uses this fact to support her argument that the charges on adultery on the part of Anne were without basis.

Furthermore, the incest taboo was very strong in the Tudor court. It is, after all, why Henry annulled his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (his brother’s widow). And as a devout Christian woman, Anne would be very unlikely to participate in a sexual relationship with her brother no matter how strongly she desired a son. Instead, Weir argues, the elevation of Anne to queen had risen the fortune of her family, including her brother, George. Whether or not George’s wife claimed her husband had carnal knowledge of his sister, casting him in a suspicious light would have removed him from the King’s council allowing claims against the queen to go unchecked and reduced the fortune of the Boleyn-Howard family as a whole.

As for the loss of her pregnancy in January 1536, Weir does not dismiss that this fact could have caused Henry to sour towards Anne. While the birth of a healthy girl in 1533 at least demonstrated that the Anne was fertile and capable of giving birth to a healthy infant. However, by 1536, Anne had lost at least two pregnancies; Weir lists four total pregnancies in her genealogical chart at the beginning of the book. Her miscarriage of a male fetus around fifteen weeks occurred within days of the King’s nearly dying during a jousting tournament, and Henry was likely increasingly desperate for a son and heir as a result.

Weir asserts, however, that the child could not have been deformed because of how the fetus was examined in great detail to determine its sex. Not a single record from the time period mentions a deformity – only that the Queen had lost a boy child. Presumably, a noticeable deformity would have damped the King’s rage over the loss of a male child (or, at least shifted it to a suspicion of witchcraft) because the child would not have been the healthy, male heir he longed for, if it had been carried to term. Anne’s supposed sixth finger would have also been mentioned in writings of the time, which leads Weir to suppose that the lack of mention means Anne, at most, had an extra fingernail. Not an extra finger.

Instead, Weir asserts that Anne’s downfall was largely due to the fallout between her and Thomas Cromwell over the latter’s treatment of the former Catholic monasteries. Anne wanted to reform the monasteries; Cromwell wanted to demolish them and allow the Crown to absorb their riches and lands. She publicly rebuked him through a sermon by her religious council, which was an affront due in part because of the expectations of the role of women at the time, and the former allies completely fell out with one another.

Weir explains how Cromwell took Henry’s orders to find a way for Henry to be rid of her and explored multiple avenues to accomplish that task – including investigating rumors of a pre-contract, which would have invalidated her marriage against the King – before finding “evidence” of her adultery. By stacking the jury with people who were known to be against Anne and her family, Cromwell was able to both rid the Queen of her crown and remove the Boleyns as an anti-Cromwell faction at court.

As king, Henry would have had final say in Anne’s fate (hence her attempt to pled for mercy with their daughter in her arms) and no one would have dared engage in a trail without the King’s blessing. Weir does not attempt to excuse his role by placing the blame largely upon Cromwell. In fact, geography and the speed of communication at the time meant Henry would have had to send for the executioner of Cialis (a French swordsman, which meant a kinder more dignified death than by axe) before Anne’s trial thus deciding the outcome of Anne’s trial before it even began. Cromwell may have found the means, but Henry had the will.

(Interestingly, by annulling their marriage before the end of the trial, Henry and Cromwell found an unmarried woman guilty of adultery, which is impossible and thus hints to how rapidly both desired to be rid of the Queen.)

Towards the end of the book, Weir begins to recount the lasting impact Anne had on both history and popular imagination. I often point out that Anne got her revenge through the long and prosperous reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I (also known as Gloriana) so I was particularly interested to read about how Anne’s death affected her daughter. Weir asserts that while the nearly three-year-old child did pick up on her change from a legitimate Princess to a bastard immediately, Elizabeth was probably not informed that her mother had been executed for quite some time.

She takes this to suggest that whatever his feelings towards Anne upon her death, Henry at least loved their daughter and was attempting to shield her from this knowledge. Henry had to have at least one redeeming quality, I suppose. We do know, at least, that Elizabeth never spoke of her mother following her death, but was buried wearing a ring with a portrait of her mother and herself side by side. Her father’s likeness nowhere to be found.

I haven’t really commented on Weir’s writing style, but there is a reason why she continues to be one of my favorite historians despite some of the criticism surrounding her use of primary documents. Criticisms I think do not hold water in this particular case because most of the primary documents for this time period come from Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish diplomat who was unapologetically pro-Katherine of Aragon and Mary I. It is difficult to take the word of a man who consistently referred to Anne as “the Concubine” as fact, and I think Weir does a great job of explaining why certain documents should be valued over others.

Obviously, I found this book to be a fascinating exploration of the events leading up to Anne’s execution. I am an unapologetic fan (for lack of a better word) of Anne Boleyn, and this was the perfect follow-up to Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which transitions from the death of Anne to Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour in the rapid fashion that it actually occurred in.

Paris Red by Maureen Gibbons

Fiction – print. W. W. Norton, 2015. 288 pgs. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

As she stands in front of a shop working on her sketch and wearing her green “whore” boots, seventeen-year-old Victorine Meurent meets a mysterious man who helps her understand how to properly add shadows and, therefore, dimensions to her drawings. The young woman lives and works in the poorer left bank of Paris in 1862, and experience has made her slightly leery of the older man’s intentions.

Yet she introduces him to her roommate and closest friend and is willing to entertain his wish to engage in a threesome with both her and her friend. Eventually, when the jealousy becomes unbearable, Victorine seduces the artist thus ending her friendship and her connection with her family, losing her job at a silver polishing factory, and launching her career as a model for the artist, Édouard Manet, in his infamous portrait “Olympia”.

I have very little familiarity with Manet’s work so I spent much of this fictional tale wondering who Victorine’s mysterious artist might be. (I only skimmed the summary of the novel on the jacket cover). Certainly, the mystery kept me reading to the end, but I think not really knowing who the artist might be allows the focus to remain upon Victorine. This is her story, her transition from a woman who wears whore boots (a fact she repeats over and over) to becoming a woman whose position as muse makes many think she is a whore.

For all her naiveté, Victorine has seen the downside to the arrangement she is considering and possesses a kind of plucky, self-assurance that is hard not to admire. She longs to escape the life of a poorly paid factory worker, and she seemed to have tried as many avenues as open to her. A threesome may not be something the reader might consider, but becoming a mistress was an avenue out of poverty and Victorine refuses to feel shame about taking advantage of such an opportunity. Gibbons’ fictional Victorine certainly made me want to learn about the real Victorine. (Manet, for his part, comes across as a lecher.)

I did see on review that refers to this novel as “historical fiction erotica”, which is a pretty apt description. Much of Victorine and Manet’s interactions are sexual in nature, and the story did not fill in the gaps of what is known about their relationship in the way other novels focused on particular paintings have. I went in expecting the book to do this and was disappointed to find the novel lacked the descriptive prose about the painting featured on the cover I expected and the way the novel ends with the painting’s completion rather than its first public viewing.

On the later point, I don’t think ignoring the vitriol reaction to the painting can be excused as not a part of Victorine’s story – certainly, being called a whore with her image spat upon would affect Victorine. On the former point, I can excuse this because the descriptions of poverty in 1862 Paris more than made up for it. Even if I couldn’t immediately imagine the painting, I could imagine the setting with near perfect clarity in my head.

Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac

Nonfiction – print. Liveright Publishing, 2015. 160 pgs. Library copy.

In 1975, Bunjevac’s mother, Sally, flees to her birthplace of Yugoslavia with toddler Nina and Nina’s older sister, Sarah, in order to escape her abusive marriage. Her husband, Peter, assumes that demanding Sally leave their eldest child, Petey, behind with him will force Bunjevac’s mother to return with the girls, but Nina ends up staying in Yugoslavia until her father and two of his friends accidentally blow themselves up. Only then does Nina learn that her mother took her daughters and ran because Nina’s father, a Serbian nationalist who had been forced to leave Yugoslavia in the 1950s, had become involved in a terrorist organization determined to overthrow the Communist Yugoslav government.

I cannot proclaim enough how much I loved, loved, loved the way Bunjevac allows this important revelation to inform the structure of her memoir. The book begins with a visit from her elderly mother long after she and Nina have returned to Canada before delving into the events of Nina’s childhood and the move to Yugoslavia, which are presented as a child would view them: her mother is that crazy lady who shoves a large dresser in front of the window every night as she tucks her children in bed; her father is the gruff man who often yells at his wife and children; and her grandparents are the keepers of knowledge who hush when she enters into a room.

The arrival of a telegram announcing her father’s death shifts the story to the past allowing Nina to learn more about her father’s history in Yugoslavia including his marriage to Nina’s mother and, later, his emigration to Canada where became involved in a terrorist organization dedicated to the Serbian nationalist cause.

Then, the panels with scenes of Nina’s childhood are repeated with the knowledge only an adult who knows the kind of person her father was can have: the dresser her mother moved every night was to prevent someone from throwing a Molotov cocktail into her home in retaliation for her husband’s actions. I’m afraid I’m not explaining this correctly but it was so very clever, even if it did mean the story ended rather abruptly.

The one drawback to this memoir is its presumption of a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the reader. While I have read about and studied the Bosnian Genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the past, even I found myself wishing Bunjevac had done a better job meshing her personal, micro-level story with the larger conflict.

Her explanation that her father joined a Serbian terrorist organization because he hated the Communist Yugoslavic government seemed very simplistic given what I do know of ethnic tensions in the region. Maybe a few more pages dedicated to the history of the region and the lasting influence of the ruler, Tito, would have helped fleshed things out?

Still, well-worth a read in order to experience the clever way Bunjevac reassess her own experiences with new knowledge. And the recent publication date for this graphic memoir leads me to hope there is a chance for a follow-up.

The Trouble with Mr. Darcy by Sharon Lathan

Fiction – print. Sourcebooks, 2011. 344 pgs. Copy traded through PaperBackSwap.

I’m beginning to notice a pattern in sequels to Austen’s classic novel: Elizabeth experiences a tragedy during pregnancy, one of the Bennet sisters marries, Georgiana falls in love, Lydia arrives unannounced at a family function, Catherine de Bourgh will criticize Elizabeth, and Wickham hatches a plan to extract revenge upon Darcy that usually involves placing Elizabeth in mortal danger.

And Lathan’s book nearly follows this pattern to a T with Elizabeth experiencing postpartum depression following the premature birth of her and Darcy’s second child, Kitty preparing to marry an older man in the army named Artois, Lydia arriving at Netherfield to crash Kitty’s wedding, Lady de Bourgh criticizing the way Elizabeth raises her children, and Wickham hatching a plan to kidnap and, possibly, murder Elizabeth and her eldest son.

This book is the fifth in Lathan’s series so I started at the end rather than the beginning, which explains why so many of the characters felt unfamiliar to me. Darcy suddenly has multiple aunts and uncles previously unintroduced in Austen’s novel and one of the uncles, a doctor by the name of George Darcy, features heavily in the story as he explains postpartum depression to Darcy – a very modern diagnosis and understanding of psychology – and administers to both Elizabeth and young Alexander following their ordeal.

Unfortunately, these new characters were introduced to the detriment of Darcy and Elizabeth’s friendships with Bingley and Jane. The two couples felt more like reluctant relations than close friends, and I felt rather sad at the suggestion that the foursome would lose their friendship after years of marriage.

Seeing how loving and affection Darcy was with his children did lift my spirits, although I felt some aspects of his relationship with Elizabeth in this book did not ring true. I mean, yes, they have sex at nearly every turn (a common plotline in Pride and Prejudice sequels), but their interactions lacked the witty banter I normally associate with these two.

Darcy is overwrought in the presence of his uncle at one point because he assumes his wife no longer loves him, which felt callous given Elizabeth’s concern their premature baby might not live and seemed like an unusual display of emotion for someone like Darcy. This is the fifth book in the series and, inevitably, the characters will change as a result of the events in the previous four books so Lathan deserves some leeway, but this book just reiterated to me that I need to move on from reading sequels to Austen’s books. Especially after it fell into the trap of making Wickham into a unbelievable villain.

One final thing: the timeline of this book was not always clear. The book opens with an introduction to Elizabeth, Darcy, and their two little boys, Alexander and Michael, only to jump back to the months Darcy and Elizabeth spent exploring the Continent during Elizabeth’s second pregnancy. I had to reread these sections twice to nail down the timeline and very likely would have given up had the book not been the only one I had on hand during jury duty.