The Enchanted April (1922) by Elizabeth von Arnim


For the first time in a very long time I am nearly, oh so nearly, up to date with blog posts. All those half written reviews I had languishing on the laptop for weeks on end have now been posted as part of a three week long burst of activity which probably clogged up a few news feeds and inboxes; sorry about that.  Thankfully I might now be able to go back to more regular, less erratic blogging habits.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April is a really lovely book with which to welcome in this new era, especially because it perfectly demonstrates the impact of blogger recommendations on my ever evolving reading habits. I hadn’t really heard of von Arnim until a short while ago and it was only noticing the consistently favourable reviews popping up on the various book blogs I follow that encouraged me to give this one a try. Now that I’ve read it I can wholeheartedly add my voice to all those many others that sing its praises. It does mean that I’m very conscious that all the words I want to use in this post – ‘enchanting’, ‘gentle’, ‘delightful’, ‘magical’ and so on – are going to sound quite tired though. I’ll try to refrain from being too gushing or trite if I can.

 To those who appreciate wistaria and sunshine, small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. X, Box 1000, The Times. 

When the above advertisement appears in The Times, Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot see a chance to escape from their quietly miserable lives in wet, dreary London. To defray the cost they place an advert of their own in the paper and recruit two strangers as holiday companions: formidable Mrs Fisher and the young, cynical Lady Caroline Destler. Each woman arrives at beautiful San Salvatore with her own unhappiness in tow but after the petty squabbles and misunderstandings die down the relationships between them thaw and the castle begins to work its magic.

This is a warm, witty novel and one of my favourite things about it has to be von Arnim’s character observations. She moves carefully from one character to another, giving each one’s complex, changing, conflicting feelings her equal and undivided attention. They’re so beautifully, so minutely drawn that I could see traces of myself in each one (even when I didn’t want to). There’s something quite sincere and personal about the way she approaches her characters so that even when they’re at their most selfish they’re strangely sympathetic. In theory the spoilt Lady Caroline – whose wealth and beauty have become something of a burden – should be truly insufferable but I was absolutely on her side in every possible way. Of course it must be hard to be so attractive to everyone. Of course she needs peace and quiet in which to take stock of herself. Of course she needs a retreat from all those ‘grabbers’ out there. Maybe I too was seduced by her ethereal looks and melodious voice.

It probably goes without saying that I was also a huge fan of the setting. I read somewhere that the castle of San Salvatore is based on a real medieval castle on the Italian Riviera in which von Arnim spent some happy summer months. Her descriptions of the castle gardens are so evocative. You can feel the heat of the sun through the pages and smell the wisteria on the breeze.

Of course, no novel is perfect and I was a little disappointed by the way in which von Arnim wraps everything up towards the end; I’m clearly a bitter, resentful person because I still can’t forgive the menfolk their poor behaviour quite so easily. It troubled me that none of the real issues at the heart of all the loneliness in this novel were really addressed and I finished with an awful niggling feeling that maybe the magic of San Salvatore wouldn’t continue to work after the characters returned home. But I am trying not to think about that one too much. This novel is so damn charming that you can’t let negative feelings like that hang about for too long.


The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante


I surprised myself with how much I was looking forward to jumping back into Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. My Brilliant Friend, which I read back in April, is still one of my favourite books of the whole year and I’ve been desperately impatient to get my grubby little hands on the follow up. It took a while – mainly because of that whole changing jobs/libraries thing – but it finally appeared on the reserve shelf, with its little white label marked with my name, last week and I was over the moon about it. I did a silent dance right there and then in the library. I finished the book in a week (not bad at my current reading pace) and I’m already thirsty for book three so I’ll be back there later this week to add my name to another reservation list.

“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done. 

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there.


The Story of a New Name begins almost precisely where My Brilliant Friend left off: with Lila’s marriage and Elena’s growing acceptance that her best friend is finally escaping the poverty and the violence of the neighbourhood they’ve known since childhood. I’ll let you guess whether that actually happens. In this novel Lila has chance to adjust to her new life as Signora Caracci while Elena reluctantly continues her studies, pining for Nino and quietly envying her old friend’s glamorous new existence. This is a surprisingly long (and tumultuous) novel; a lot happens and all I can really say, without giving too much away, is that the friendship between the two becomes increasingly complicated and troubled.

The weird thing about this novel is that my feelings towards Lila evolved almost in time with Elena’s, which almost proves how utterly convincing Ferrante’s writing is. You can completely understand the fascination Lila holds for those around her and why they all seem to love her and hate her in equal measure. She’s at her most ferocious here; she lashes out at others to compensate for her own humiliation and sometimes she seems to do it with real relish. On the other hand you also get a real sense of how terribly afraid she is. You never doubt that she’d happily claw your eyes out to get what she wants, to prove everyone wrong and to salvage some sense of herself from her unhappy existence. Now that I think it over fully I wonder whether she might be one of the realest characters I’ve ever come across. Elena never manages to be quite so compelling but I think that’s probably the whole point. In her reluctance to dwell too much on the details of her own life away from the neighbourhood we get a very clear message that without Lila there’s not much worth dwelling on. Their relationship is frequently exasperating but it’s also engrossing and, at times, horribly distressing to witness. You wish that they weren’t quite so quick to push each other away when times get tough.

Ferrante’s writing, as I’ve now come to expect, is like nothing I’ve really read before. It’s brutal, intense, fierce even, and somehow quite urgent. It really emphasises the volatility of the relationships and the stark realities of life in this violent but rapidly changing neighbourhood. I find it emotionally exhausting at times but in a strangely positive sort of way, almost like I can’t read fast enough to satisfy my hunger to know what will happen next. There aren’t many authors who have that ability to provide such a brilliantly nuanced insight into a relationship or who leave you quite so emotionally drained afterwards.

Bring on book 3 🙂

My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante

Layout 1

The Neapolitan series (of which this is the first) has popped up on my radar a few times over the past year or so. I’ve seen a multitude of blog reviews (generally fairly positive) and a number of press and TV pieces speculating on Ferrante’s true identity (when really I don’t think she could have made her wishes any plainer). The upshot of it all is that I’ve just been a bit curious to see what all the Ferrante fuss is about. On the face of it, My Brilliant Friend isn’t really the sort of book that I would normally seek out – what with the old lady cover design and the fact that a friend vaguely mentioned that it was about ’friendship’ – but you know what? I liked it. No one is more surprised than I am.

“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood; it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”

The story begins in the present day as Elena, our narrator, receives the not altogether unexpected news that her childhood friend Lila has disappeared. The rest of the story is told in one long flashback as Elena reflects back on a childhood spent in the poverty stricken slums of post-war Naples. She and Lila first meet while playing with their dolls in the courtyard of their apartment building; by the time this instalment of the series ends the girls are sixteen and navigating very different paths in life. It’s an almost forensically detailed, moment by moment, analysis of the constantly shifting dynamic between them as they’re pushed together and pulled apart over the years.

It’s a compelling read because Elena’s relationship with Lila is kind of electrifying. They vacillate between resentment and jealousy one minute and a fierce, destructive sort of loyalty the next.

“Do you love him?”

She said seriously, “Very much.”

“More than your parents, more than Rino?”

“More than everyone, but not more than you.”

Elena is quiet and studious and understands herself only in relation to her friendship with Lila. Lila likes breaking things, says Elena, and that seems true. She’s ferocious, a force of nature and, like Elena, I’m slightly in awe of her. Ultimately life unjustly bestows very different opportunities on the girls and while one is given a daily escape from the slums, the other is condemned to remain. It ends with a wedding, a wonderfully tense wedding in fact, and a final sentence that feels a bit like a surprise slap in the face.

Ferrante paints an intensely colourful, almost cinematic, portrait of a slum community in the shadow of the war. Shoemakers, grocers and seamstresses appear side by side amongst profiteers and thugs. The novel is so densely populated that at first I struggled to distinguish between some of the families and had to rely on the supplied character list to help me out. But after a bit of perseverance I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t even notice that I’d stopped needing to check. I love the way that Ferrante slices together the day-to-day coming of age parts of the plot – exams, pimples, boyfriends, rows with parents – with the violence that seems to be inherent in the setting. There’s domestic violence, a murder, brawls in the street, family feuds, the menacing Solara brothers… It’s artfully done.

I know it’s the worst of all the clichés, but I really found it hard to put this book down. In part I think this is because the two central characters, Lila in particular, are drawn so well. They feel like people you know. A lot of the credit also goes, of course, to Ferrante’s writing. It’s not lyrical or poetic but it’s precise. Every turn of phrase, every word, gives the impression that it’s been specially chosen for the exact something that it will bring to the scene. Nothing is superfluous. For someone who very much favours standalone novels this was a bit of a surprise to me. I’m going to put the next one on my library list and we’ll see where we go from here.  The reviews for the later books all seem to be pretty complimentary so I’m hopeful.

The Shape Of Water (2003) by Andrea Camilleri

SHapeOfWaterWork has been a bit grim lately so, to cheer me up, P booked us a weekend away in Oxford. I’d never been before but we had a great time exploring all those ancient streets, colleges and museums. We crammed a lot in that day, including a stop for lunch at a veggie pub called The Gardener’s Arms where I had a really good chilli cheese hot dog. I don’t really like hot dogs. That’s how good this one was.

Our table was next to a little book shelf and while we waited for our food we spent a little time browsing. Inevitably I ended up taking two books home with me and the barman would only let me give him £3 for them, which was very kind as they were both in good nick. One of the books was The Haunted House, a collection of Victorian ghost stories from the likes of Dickens, Gaskell, Collins et al. Apparently I don’t have enough classic ghost stories.

The other was this book, an Inspector Montalbano mystery by Andrea Camilleri, chosen purely because I love the TV show which you can sometimes find on BBC 4 late at night. In case you’ve not seen it, most of the show is taken up with the insanely long opening credits but there’s also some beautiful Sicilian scenery, several  people shouting at each other in Italian, some petty crime and lots of really gratuitous shots of seafood being prepared and eaten. I mean, really, it’s mainly about a man who eats seafood and solves the occasional murder on the side. Usually after his afternoon nap. I love it.

In this book Salvo Montalbano investigates the death of a local politician whose body is discovered in a car on a notorious beach used by local prostitutes. He suspects it’s got something to do with political rivalry in the dead guy’s party but he’s also got to deal with a missing diamond necklace, a mafia shoot out and an old man who thinks his wife is having an affair with the octogenarian postman. To make things worse several beautiful women want to sleep with him but he’s too preoccupied with eating seafood, napping and solving crimes to pay them any attention.

“As they ate they spoke of eating, as always happens in Italy. Zito, after reminiscing about the heavenly shrimp he had enjoyed ten years earlier at Fiacca, criticised these for being a little over done and regretted that they lacked a hint of parsley…”

I wasn’t overly gripped by the mystery but I think this is probably down to the very casual, laid back style in which it’s written. Part of me loves all that local colour; the food, the sunsets, the beautiful women, the humour. The scene setting is actually really well done and Camilleri is great at providing really effortless place descriptions that don’t feel tired or forced. But the other half of me gets frustrated and wants to feel a bit more engaged with the story and the characters. I guess it’s a book you read for the setting and the atmosphere, rather than for the mystery.

I hate to say it but I think I might prefer the TV show. Actually, let’s be truthful, I don’t hate to say it. I get a weird, perverted kick out of preferring the adaptation to the book. I’m like that. But I’m glad I read it, if only because I’ve been meaning to read one of these books ever since I discovered the show. At least now I can cross it off my ever growing TBR list.