The House on the Strand

For my Classics Club Spin, I ended up with Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. I knew nothing about it going into reading the book, except that I’ve enjoyed other du Maurier works and assumed it would probably be a slightly creepy, atmospheric read.

While The House on the Strand has a little less of the horror about it than some of her other books, there is still a sense of creeping dread and the protagonist certainly makes some questionable decisions. The sense of dread increases as you approach the end….

The novel is a first person account of a restless and rather impressionable man, Dick Young, who has come down to Cornwall to his friend Magnus’s house for a holiday.

Dick is in between jobs and is at the house a few days before his new-ish wife, Vita, and two stepsons are due to join him. Magnus has allowed Dick to use his house for free, but mentions that he (a scientist) has an experimental drug that he wants Dick to try. Mangnus assures him that he’s taken the drug himself and it’s perfectly safe. Sounds like steep rent to me.

Dick reluctantly agrees to help and finds himself transported mentally back to 14th century Cornwall following a man called Roger, steward of a local landowner. While Dick can follow and observe, invisibly, any attempt to interact with the 14th century jerks him back into the 20th, nauseated and confused.

As time goes on, Dick becomes more and more fascinated with the 14th century and the people there and less interested in his own life and relationships, which causes a bit of marital strife when Vita shows up a day early and wants to talk about their future.

Both the past and present stories were interesting, and I appreciated the way Dick was characterized and the way he convinces himself that everything is totally under control and he can stop any time he wants to (he just doesn’t want to yet).

I enjoyed this book, though I don’t know if it’s the best du Maurier, and it kept me intrigued to find out what happened in the end. Speaking of the end, I don’t want to spoil it, but I’d be glad to talk about it with you if you have an interpretation.

In a funny turn, I read both this and Blake Crouch’s Recursion back to back, which was more weird time travel than I was expecting at once!

★ ★ ★ ★

Sense & Sensibility

“Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family in general, soon procured herself a book.”

I bought the Audible version of this book read by Rosamund Pike earlier this year and promptly forgot about it. I think I wasn’t in the mood, or maybe it was while I was reading War & Peace, so I re-discovered it in my Audible library again this summer. Summer is a great time to read Jane Austen, so I pressed play and enjoyed Pike’s mellifluous voice (the word is fancy, but Pike as a narrator does live up to it).

As is usual with Jane Austen, her wit and keen observations are on full display here. No one escapes completely unscathed, and the number of ridiculous characters is high.

In case you want a plot refresher… when Mr. Dashwood dies, he leaves–by law–nearly everything to his son John, with a parting plea to look after his wife and daughters (John’s stepmother and three half-sisters). John is (easily) influenced by his greedy wife, Fanny, and does nothing for them (in a masterful description of willing manipulation early in the novel).

The widow Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, move to a small cottage near some relatives and adventures ensue. Attractions, secret engagements, differences of temperament, and different ways of handling disappointment make up the rest of the story.

The sense and sensibility of the title come primarily from Elinor and Marianne who behave in nearly opposite ways when confronted with romantic disappointment:

[Chapter 23] “…when she joined them at dinner only two hours after she had first suffered the extinction of all her dearest hopes, no one would have supposed from the appearance of the sisters, that Elinor was mourning in secret over obstacles which must divide her for ever from the object of her love, and that Marianne was internally dwelling on the perfections of a man, of whose whole heart she felt thoroughly possessed, and whom she expected to see in every carriage which drove near their house.”

The minor characters in an Austen novel are always a delight as well. Lucy Steele in particular this time struck me as one of her great villains. Lucy is sharp enough to notice that Elinor has attracted the attention and admiration of Edward Ferrars (whom Lucy hopes to marry), and forces her confidence upon Elinor in a scene that is enraging but oh-so-polite. She depends (rightly) on Elinor’s good character,fortitude, and manners to inflict pain.

[Chapter 24] “I was somehow or other afraid I had offended you by what I told you that Monday.”

“Offended me! How could you suppose so? Believe me,” and Elinor spoke it with the truest sincerity, “nothing could be farther from my intention than to give you such an idea. Could you have a motive for the trust, that was not honourable and flattering to me?”

“And yet I do assure you,” replied Lucy, her little sharp eyes full of meaning, “there seemed to me to be a coldness and displeasure in your manner that made me quite uncomfortable.

If there were an Austen heroine I feel I’m most similar to, it’s Elinor Dashwood. She’s quiet, calm, and practical, but she’s also deeply sensitive. She shuts herself down before expressing emotion; it’s clear she has strong emotions like her sister, but while Marianne allows herself full expression (and maybe some wallowing) Elinor tamps hers down to not cause others pain.

Both sisters need to learn from one another and meet a little more in the middle, which they do a bit by the end of the novel.

There are varying opinions on the ending, and I agree that when we do get to the end tying things up seems a bit hasty. While I’m not completely sold on the ending like I am the ending of Pride and Prejudice, I still appreciate the characters and the journey, and Austen’s style of writing and keen observation never cease to delight me.

★ ★ ★ ★

Up Next: Classics Club Spin #21

As part of my reading life, I have a goal of reading 50 classics in 5 years (well, a little under 4 years at this point), and the challenge is always which one to pick up next!

I have a couple of reviews that I need to finish writing up from books I read this summer, and then I need to choose some fall reading. To that end, the Classics Club has helpfully launched another Spin, which is where the reader lists 20 books on their TBR (to be read) list, they pick a number and the corresponding book is the one to pick up next.

I’m currently listening to Great Expectations on Audible (I have 16 hours and 25 minutes remaining, so that should keep my ears busy), so I won’t include that in my spin possibility list. But for a physical book to read next, here’s my list:

  1. Acehbe, Chinua: Things Fall Apart
  2. Bronte, Charlotte: Villette
  3. Camus, Alber: The Stranger
  4. Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in White
  5. Du Maurier, Daphne: The House on the Strand
  6. Du Maurier, Daphne: My Cousin Rachel
  7. Eliot, George: The Mill on the Floss
  8. Hemingway, Ernest: A Moveable Feast
  9. le Carre, John: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
  10. L’Engle, Madeleine: Many Waters
  11. L’Engle, Madeleine: An Acceptable Time
  12. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia: Love in the Time of Cholera
  13. Orwell, George: Animal Farm
  14. Sayers, Dorothy: Gaudy Night
  15. Shakespeare, William: Richard II
  16. Sophocles: Antigone
  17. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers
  18. Undset, Sigrid: Kristin Lavransdatter
  19. Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
  20. Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’ll update this post next Monday with the winner.

Update: The winner is #5, The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier. Excellent! I feel like du Maurier is an author best read in the fall or winter due to her atmospheric novels, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.

A Murder Is Announced

My long list of 50 classics to read by 2023 includes two Agatha Christie mysteries. My mother and grandmother introduced me to the delights of Christie when I was in middle school (exact age unclear) and I’ve been a fan ever since. I’ve read almost all her Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries, but thought I hadn’t read this one.

I’ve had a hard time locating a copy here, and was delighted when I found this fun retro copy at the beautiful Daunt Books shop in London. What better souvenirs to bring back to the US than British literature?

As I started reading, the story started to feel familiar, and about two thirds of the way through I was pretty sure I remembered who the murderer was… but this was still a fun (re)read.

The mystery opens with an announcement in the small town newspaper announcing a murder that evening at 6:30. Half the village shows up “randomly” at the house in question around that time, curious to see the outcome. Of course, it turns into a very real murder, soon followed by other murders. The local constabulary needs the help of the unassuming-looking Miss Marple to unravel the tangled web.

I don’t think this is Christie’s finest, but it was still an entertaining read, full of details of village life and the cleverness of the underrated Miss Marple.

★ ★ ★

Books Read: War & Peace

Well, I’ve done it. I finally (five and a half months later) finished Tolstoy’s epic tale.

I’ve discovered that while I enjoy Russian literature, I can really only read in small-ish chunks at a time because I find it all a bit exhausting. Everything is so epic! So overblown! So many feeeeelings!

This is a big story taking place during the Napoleonic wars. It bounces between “war” sections in the fighting and “peace” sections in society.

Tolstoy’s war sections focus on soldiers, their feelings at the moment, the larger movements of campaigns, and Tolstoy’s own theories of war and how history (mis)represents them, and a few main characters in particular.

The “peace” sections focus primarily on three families: the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Rostovs, though members of these families all fight in the war as well.

What can I say about this book that has not already been said, and more eloquently? I did really enjoy falling into the story, and the characters were well-drawn and engrossing. It moved more quickly than I anticipated, opening at a party without preamble.

Some war sections were a bit of a slog for me, but overall it’s pretty well paced. It’s just a LOT of book.

Three tips if you decide (which you definitely should!) to read this book:

1. Have a list of characters and their nicknames handy. The version I read had a list at the front, which I copied and had next to me when I read. Everyone has their given name, at least a couple of nicknames, and there are MULTIPLE CHARACTERS NAMED NIKOLAI! So it’s good to have a reference.

2. Settle in. I recommend you start reading in the winter–it just feels more appropriate to the setting (you too can pretend you’re the French army freezing to death as you try to retreat out of Russia in 1812!). Just let yourself sink into this story, into the characters, and hang in there for some intra-story essays on war and how history treats war.

Tolstoy has mostly story and history here, but he definitely blends some essays into this work.

3. Prepare yourself for some French, which in my version, Pevear & Volokhonsky (the translators) translated in the footnotes. The aristocrats speak a lot of French in society, though as the war progresses the amount of French decreases. On the one hand, it’s a little annoying to have to read the footnotes to understand everything, but on the other, it makes it clear when someone is speaking French and when they’re speaking Russian. I don’t know how they would have achieved this if they’d just translated everything into English.

I hope you read this book, and when you do (or if you already have), please come find me and talk about it! It’s a daunting book to pick up because of its length and reputation, but I found it much more readable than I feared. I haven’t read any other versions, obviously, but I recommend this translation by Pevear & Volokhonsky–there was nothing choppy about the style of writing, it all flowed smoothly, which I appreciated. I’ve read other translated works where I’m sure I missed some of the beauty of the language because while the sense was translated, the prose felt stilted. None of that was present here, making it easy to immerse myself in the world of Natasha’s singing, Pierre’s muddled philosophizing, Andrei’s moodiness, Nikolai’s excitement being with his fellow soldiers….

When people say this book is about everything, they aren’t wrong.

★ ★ ★ ★