Zen Cho, Sorcerer To The Crown

I’m not sure I see the similarities between Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. In Cho’s book, as in Clarke’s, magic is a part of the 19th-ish century British society, but unlike most fantasies those with magic are not of the ruling clan. That is to say that the governing and the running of the country is left in the hands of a government which is decidedly un-magical. Magic is treated as just another society, like horticulturists (I have no idea why that and no other popped up in my mind). And that’s as far as the parallels exist—but then again, since I read Clarke’s behemoth of a book early last year, it’s possible my memory’s a little rusty!

As the story begins we find that the magic in Britain has been slowly dwindling for some time. Nobody knows why but the crisis reaches its head when a black man, Zacharias Whyte, becomes the Sorcerer Royale. Whispers and rumors imply that it is Zacharias’s blackness that has resulted in this magical malady.

sorcerer_front mech.inddWomen of course are completely forbidden to do any sort of magic—their frames being thought of as too frail to support the travails of “magicking.” Indeed, the very idea of a woman doing magic is held in disdain:

Nothing disgusted a thaumaturge so much as a witch. Shameless, impudent, meddling females, who presumed to set at naught the Society’s prohibition on women’s magic, and duped the common people with their potions and cantrips!

(Did you know there was a word called cantrip? Or prolix? Or directoire? Or geas? Cho’s use of these old words very much evoke the sense of another era)

Enter Prunella Gentleman who’s more than ready to challenge everyone’s notions of female magic, left, right and center. It’s not that she sets out to do this—if anything she realizes that the best option available to her is to marry. She’s part of a school whose express purpose is teaching women how NOT to do magic:

It was a curious contradiction that even as the rest of England languished for want of magic, the school was afflicted with more than it knew what to do with. Being a school for gentlewitches, it did not, of course, instruct its students in practical thaumaturgy. Mrs. Daubeney knew just what parents desired her to inculcate in their inconveniently magical daughters: pretty manners, a moderate measure of education and, above all, a habit of restraint.

But who she is cannot be stamped out of Prunella, as Zacharias soon realizes, vigorous attempts to the contrary. Prunella is resourceful, and unapologetically ambitious. And her ambitiousness is a thing of joy. She is the yang to Zacharias’s yin (yes, there’s some delicious gender flipping in the story), and she simply steals all the scenes in which she features.

One of my favorite scenes is where Prunella is doing a particularly dangerous piece of magic and Zacharias is trying to be noble, urging Prunella to make a run for it:

“Go,” he said urgently. “Wake the servants, and get out of the building. I will contain them.” He had no notion how he would do it, but at least he could try to limit the damage, even if he were destroyed in the attempt.

Prunella was not at all grateful for this display of nobility, however.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” she said crossly. “Why do not you go, and take the servants with you?” She wrested herself from Zacharias’s grasp. . . “There is nothing to be alarmed about, only I wish you would go back to bed, and not trouble yourself about my business. I cannot deal with the treasures in your presence. It would be very improper!”

Prunella’s brown (she’s of Indian origin), and Zacharias is black, brought up by a white couple. Both these characteristics are very much a thing of the story. By which I mean that while the color of our protagonists’ skin leads to them being subjected to all sorts of prejudices by the rest of the society, who they are portrayed as is so much more than just their brownness or blackness.

Then there’s Mak Genggang, a Malay witch I think, who is an old, wily hag, cackling away in glory while everyone around her fumbles and stumbles! I love all the scenes with her too! And the ones with Rollo as well! Oh and the whole of the “epic battle” while all the gentlemen keep nattering about! What am I talking about? Oh, just go read the book, and find out yourself!

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life

The first thing that I love about a Diana Wynne Jones story is this feeling of being immediately sucked into another world as soon as I start reading. She plunges one directly into a scene with characters (metaphorically) flailing their arms around, and talking to each other, and going somewhere, and this sense of motion and activity immediately drops me into another world. She dispenses with descriptions for outright action. Or at least that’s what I felt as Charmed Life opens.

Charmed Life is about a boy who’s forlorn and clings to his sister, Gwendolen, even though it’s obvious that his sister could not care two hoots about him. One could tell right from the beginning the way this would all turn out though I do so wish that Gwendolen hadn’t turned out to be such a witch! And I’m not using witch in a magical sense here! Why couldn’t DWJ have endowed Gwendolen with any redeeming characteristics? Or rather why was Gwendolen’s naked ambition portrayed as being all witchly? And again I don’t mean that in a magical way!

Charmed_Life Diana Wynne JonesOk, I understand that what she was doing was BAD but I’d sure have liked to understand more of where she was coming from, you know? (though Janet does make up for some of it. Oh, and also the fact that Gwendolen seems to have gotten the happy ending that she would have wished for).

But anyway even though one could sense the direction in which the wind was blowing it was still SO MUCH FUN TO READ IT ALL!

And that brings me to what I’m beginning to think is a Diana Wynne Jones specialty. She has this way of EXCELING at the details that make up the bulk of a thing. They’re just so INTERESTING to read about! For instance, in Charmed Life Gwendolen makes all the surrounding trees uproot themselves from their regular spots and come squash themselves right next to the house. And well the way DWJ goes about describing it is just so vivid and fun:

Feeling tired and Mondayish, Cat dragged himself out of bed and found he could not see out of the windows. Each window was a dark crisscross of branches and leaves—green leaves, bluish cedar sprays, pine needles, and leaves just turning yellow and brown. One window had a rose pressed against it. And there were bunches of grapes squashed on both of the others. And behind them, it looked as if there was a mile-thick forest. “Good Lord!” he said.

“You may well look!” said Mary. “That sister of yours has fetched every tree in the grounds and stood them as close as they can get to the Castle.”

I think FUN is the word I would associate the most with Diana Wynne Jones. It was palpable in Howl’s Moving Castle and Castles in the Air too (the two other DWJ books that I’ve read).

I’m already thinking of her as a comfort read, and for sure, for sure, for sure, my children are going to have DWJ thrust into their hands at some point or the other! I’m very much looking forward to making my way through all of her books.

With Charmed Life there were ample of instances where I wanted to shake Cat (isn’t that an awesome name for a boy?) and tell him to wake up to the reality of what was going on but I guess a boy’s got to do what a boy’s got to do and follow his own meandering path, and take his own roundabout way, till he reaches the point where he decides that enough is enough.

Here’s another bit that I enjoyed:

He just hoped she would not reward him by making gingerbread men. As a rule, gingerbread men were fun. They leaped up off the plate when you tried to eat them, so that when you finally caught them you felt quite justified in eating them. It was a fair fight, and some got away. But Mrs. Sharp’s gingerbread men never did that. They simply lay, feebly waving their arms, and Cat never had the heart to eat them.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I love stories which read like a love song dedicated to the everydayness of our lives. There’s something about that amplification of the extraordinariness in the ordinary—details that we take for granted, details that our gaze barely manages to register—that speaks to me in a way that nothing else can. I’m also a sucker for stories that focus on the indomitability of the human spirit, no matter the odds. Station Eleven is basically woven out of the warp and weft of these two strands, and so it’s no surprise that I really, really liked it.

A deadly, fast-acting flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population right at the start of the story. It’s a testimony to Mandel’s writing that the build-up to this inevitable, fast-approaching doom though devoid of any panicked scenes of chaos still manages to be completely chilling:

The conversation in Spanish went on in the nearby darkness. The shops still shone on the horizon; there was still no breeze. It was morning in New York City. She imagined Clark hanging up the receiver in his office in Manhattan. This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.

Civilization as we know it is “brutally interrupted,” and is reduced to a barebones version of itself. Time flows back and the world becomes what it used to be before technology and industrialization convened to shape it in its currently recognizable form.

station eleven emily st john mandelWoven through this narrative of a residual humanity—that one would assume would be focused on survival rather than going about brazenly proclaiming “Because survival is insufficient”—is the portrait of lives before the fall. The fulcrum of these lives is an aging actor, Arthur Leander, who dies of a heart-attack in the very first pages of the book. The crossing over of these lives—their interconnectedness—and the way Arthur Leander himself is at the center of all these connections is one of my favorite parts about this book. (And for the record, I guessed correctly—the very first time I might add—the identity of the prophet).

The moving in and out of the pre-fall world and the post-fall world made reading Station Eleven a dreamlike experience. The act of looking at the current world through Mandel’s post apocalyptic lens, and the immediacy of this post apocalyptic world—just 20 years from an unknown current date—lent a poignancy to the story which wasn’t necessarily sad but was more akin to suddenly finding yourself becoming a spectator in your own life, and feeling like you’ve become a sort of voyeur even though you once knew everything intimately.

You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage in bags on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. When you’re in danger, you call for the police. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone. All of the information in the world is on the Internet, and the Internet is all around you, drifting through the air like pollen on a summer breeze. There is money, slips of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth.

I don’t think I got attached to any specific character in the story but the writing and the wanting-to-know-how-it-all-comes-together was compelling enough to keep me reading.

[The following section might be slightly spoiler-y so just wanted to insert this here]

One last aspect that I want to mention was the way that the prophet’s character was portrayed towards the end. It would have been very easy to cast him as a raving lunatic who should be destroyed at all costs. That Mandel gives him a very understated backstory, and that the words “We long only to go home . . . We dream of sunlight, we dream of walking on earth” are central to the scene, and that these words come from the “Station Eleven” comic made me like Station Eleven a little bit more.

End of could-be spoilery-y section

I’ll end with another bit that spoke to me:

Toronto was falling silent. Every morning the quiet was deeper, the perpetual hum of the city fading away.

. . .

On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. No one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no one removes fallen trees from electrical lines.

Mary Balogh, An Unlikely Duchess & A Promise of Spring

I want to talk about Mary Balogh! I finished An Unlikely Duchess and ooh, I just loved it!

Before delving into An Unlikely Duchess though I quickly want to mention the three other Mary Baloghs that I’ve read and enjoyed in the recent past: A Christmas Bride, The Temporary Wife and A Promise of Spring.

Oh reader! I think I have found my new favorite regency romance author!

(I’m pretty sure I’ve read some of Miss Balogh’s recent works too (I think it might be from the Simply series) but either I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for them or they didn’t hit the sweet spot in the way that her earlier books seem to be doing. I want to go hunt up all her old books now!)

The number one thing that stands out for me across all these four stories is how different their protagonists are from each other! As a lover of historical romance who’s become weary of the sameness that pervades the genre, Balogh’s earlier books seem like a breath of fresh air. Her characters have a story that is uniquely theirs.

Mary Balogh A Promise of SpringI want to talk a little bit about A Promise of Spring which features a heroine who is ten years older than the hero. It’s a marriage of convenience trope and one that is excellently executed (and since this was the third marriage of convenience trope that I read from Balogh I suspect it’s a favorite of hers).

The hero was a friend of the heroine’s brother whose death has left our heroine destitute. Right in the beginning the hero, “who commanded respect entirely through the kindliness and integrity of his character,” realizes that here was a woman “whom, belatedly, he wished to know.” There’s something about that. . . lack of a martyr-ness and “goodliness” despite the offer he makes that made me warm up to him right away.

The heroine is really well rendered. We come to know that she is one who likes to keep herself emotionally aloof from those around her. She has reasons for being and doing so. The interactions that Balogh makes us privy to between the heroine and her family with whom she’s had a fractious past rang true.

That the trajectory of this marriage of convenience mirrors the path that the heroine takes as she comes to terms with who she was, and who she has become is one of my favorite parts about the book. I just love when stories show so clearly that while external circumstances play a role in the shaping of who we are, the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are are equally important too.

Here’s one of my favorite bits from the story:

Marriage was a living, dynamic relationship that must keep growing if it was to survive. They would have to want to be happy if they were to be so.

. . .

There were no certainties when one was married. Because, however close one became to another person, one never became that person.

Ahhhh. Yes, yes, and yes. It’s such a good feeling to read a story from an author who not only understands this but also incorporates it into in her story.

Ok, onto An Unlikely Duchess which is a completely different beast from A Promise of Spring!

An Unlikely Duchess Mary BaloghIn An Unlikely Duchess we have a hero—a duke—of a middling face and physique. Mr. Paul Villiers, Duke of Mitford, is a paragon of propriety and decorum who “had ever been intimate” with only one woman and that too an affair “conducted so discreetly that it was doubtful many people even knew about it.” Like with marriage of convenience, Balogh does “beta” heroes really, really well too.

Villiers is on his way to offer for our heroine, Josephine Middleton, who is perhaps the most brainless heroine I have ever had the good fortune to read about. Normally I would be up in arms about a female being characterized and referred to as brainless again, and again. But in this case—I join the chorus of characters in calling out Jo as incapable of using her head! In my defense, our heroine’s displays of brainlessness lead to such hilarious capers that I couldn’t help being glad that she was who she was!

At the very start of the story she declares, “I can’t marry this duke . . . A duke! . . . A duke, Sukey. Can you honestly see me marrying a duke? . . . I can’t marry a duke.” The marriage has been arranged by the duke’s family who are laboring under the misapprehension that our heroine is an upstanding young lady who crosses all her t-s and dots all her i-s.

Our unsure hero intercepts our heroine on his way to her home while she’s in the middle of extricating herself from the clutches of an evil villain who was supposed to help her extricate herself from the clutches of the duke in the first place. Yes, dear reader, the story stars a villain too—one who  unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the reader, is brainless too! He doesn’t realize Josephine’s true mettle. Because while she may be lacking in sense, she’s full of sensibility! And spunk! And a joie de vivre which was surprisingly fun to read about.

The poor duke being the actual upstanding citizen in this farce offers to help our heroine recover the jewels that she discovers have been stolen by the villainous personage, and as you can imagine, hilarity and romance ensue! It’s a romance of the very unobtrusive variety, the kind where the fact that two people are falling in love is announced not by trumpets or choruses but by the kind of small observations that you know two people who only have eyes for each other would notice:

Mr. Villiers looked surprised. He also looked very nice indeed, with his curls all about his face and down over the collar of his coat. He had brushed them upstairs in their room, but really he was wasting his time doing so. His hair, thank goodness, did what it wanted to do.

Or when our hero realizes that despite all his notions of propriety he still hasn’t returned our heroine back to the safety of her family:

“I think,” the Duke of Mitford said mildly, “I am a very mad gentleman, ma’am.”

Oh there is no end to the scenes which set me laughing. I don’t want to list them here—I would rather you try getting hold of a copy of the book and read it for yourself! I can say with some confidence that this is most likely going to become one of my all time favorite regency romances! It is THAT good!

Patricia Wrede, Mairelon The Magician & The Magician’s Ward

I thoroughly enjoyed Patricia Wrede’s Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot series when I read it a couple of years ago. So recently when I was in the mood for some comfort reading, I decided to hunt down some more of her books.

The Magician duology features the titular magician, Mairelon, and Kim, a street urchin, and a thief who ends up accompanying Mairelon on his journey at the start of the first book. The books are written in third person and told mostly from Kim’s point of view.

mairelon the magician patricia wredeReading Mairelon The Magician, the first in the series, I realized that one of the reasons I enjoy Wrede so much is because of her world-building. And I’m not referring to the magical elements in her stories.

I’ve normally seen the words world-building used in the context of fantasies but I’ve come to think of “world-building” as a tool that every author can wield, to some extent or the other.

The world-building in fantasies is obvious and more often than not consists of building literally a new world for the story to inhabit and exist in. But the world-building aspect need not necessarily be confined to “fantastical elements” in a story.

For instance, earlier this year I read Betty Neels for the first time ever, and it struck me that Neels’s use of certain elements—such as the details of the food, or the specifics of the décor, and the furnishings—is distinctive enough across all her stories to stand out as rudiments central to the Neelsian “world.”

In Wrede’s case one of the tools she uses very effectively is the way Kim speaks (and by extension, the words in which her thoughts are conveyed to us, the readers). To be honest, I have no idea whether people from the streets of London really spoke this way in the early part of the 19th century. Or maybe Wrede just made it all up? The colorfulness and disparateness of Kim’s speech is powerful enough to hasten the sense of being sucked into another world.

“Why not?” Kim said indignantly. “Anyone as meets you can see you’re a regular swell, and it queers me what your lay is. Bilking the culls in the markets ain’t work for a gentry cove, and you ain’t told me nothin’. I got reason for wonderin’.”

~ Mairelon The Magician

“Don’t go pitching me no gammon. You ain’t heard near enough, acos I’ll lay you a monkey the gentry-mort ain’t told you I was on the sharping lay afore Mairelon took a fancy to adopt me.”

~ The Magician’s Ward

As you can make out from the above, Kim gets adopted by Mairelon as his ward at the end of the first book. And at the end of the second book, they end up engaged. I was very interested in seeing how Wrede would show this change in their relationship given that in the first book they come off as a gentleman, and his page-in-training with nary a whiff of romance.

the magician's ward patricia wredeTurned out Wrede’s really good at portraying just how one could fall in love: not in a big fell swoop (at least in this case), but rather a stray thought here, and a puzzlement there, while going about the business of living one’s life which in this case involves magical mayhem, and intrigue of all sorts. I quite like how it takes time for Kim’s brain to catch up with where her heart has already gone.

If I had to sum up why Wrede’s books are comfort read, I’d say it’s because of the perfect blend of magic, old-timey England, a dash of romance, and a plot that is interesting enough despite being slightly boring at times (and no I refuse to believe that that’s an outright contradiction, thank you very much).

I’ll leave you with my favorite words from the books:

Bubblebrained, pigheaded, sapskulled gull! Muttonheaded flat! Nodcock. Goosecap.

Well, I ain’t no mace cove, and I don’t hold with bubbling a flash cull, not when it comes to getting priest-linked, anyways.

The often-exasperated fondness that had replaced the fear wasn’t love. Nor was the gratitude she felt because he had taken her out of the precarious street life that was all she had known until then, nor the also-often-exasperated respect that she had learned for him as a teacher, nor the equally exasperated friendship that surfaced when they were poking around some problem together. Exasperation, in fact, seemed to be a keynote of her feelings toward Mairelon. Was that how you fell in love with someone, then—by getting exasperated with him?

Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse

I came across Merrie Heskell’s The Princess Curse on LizMc2’s blog. Her description of the book as “a middle grade fantasy . . . involv[ing] a young woman discovering her power and her relationship with a powerful older man” reeled me right in!

The story’s a retake on “The 12 Dancing Princesses” fairytale. I’m not very familiar with the original tale except for the knowledge that the titular princesses are cursed to dance the night away. Thankfully, my lack of knowledge of the original had no bearing on my enjoyment of The Princess Curse which does have enough loose ends for there to be a sequel!

Reveka, the 13-year-old heroine, is exactly the kind of 13-year-old girl that I love to read about: smart (and self-aware enough to know that she’s smart), spunky, and scheming. She also has a limited store of patience, is full of confidence that borders on cockiness, and usually acts like an express train going on full steam—in other words, she reads and feels like a teenager. She dreams of having a herbary, and being “the herbalist for an entire abbey” because as she puts it:

[C]onvent was the best choice for me. A place where I would have all the time I was supposed to be devoutly praying to think about herbs. I didn’t really care for all the silence and singing and obedience—but my own herbary!

See what I mean about being smart and scheming? I want to be friends with this girl!

Also, the rich and varied description of all the herbs made me want to start a herb garden of my own! Immediately!

Reveka lives and works as an apprentice-herbalist at a castle with 12 princesses who mysteriously disappear each night. Attempts to investigate their whereabouts have resulted in either the said investigator disappearing completely or being put into a slumber from which nobody wakes up. There’s a prize for “breaking the curse” which our girl has her eyes on.

I love how we can see Reveka’s evolution as a character even in something as simple as her desire to break the curse: while money is the reason that Reveka becomes interested in the curse, very soon it takes on more personal tones as her co-apprentice gets caught in the curse’s tentacles.

The force at the center of the curse aka “the villain” is fleshed out and multidimensional rather than being rendered in a single color (in that it reminded me of another “evil villain” whose evilness had more to it than appeared on the surface). Same goes for Heskell’s description of the “Underworld” which is neither “dead” nor simple.

Reveka also has a complex relationship with her father. I don’t think I’ve seen father-daughter relationships as one of the main foci of a YA story and I really like that Heskell weaves that in. A pivotal point in the story hinges on Reveka’s love for her father. Of course, neither Reveka, nor her father, are very good at expressing their love for each other.

My one quibble with the book is the resolution of the curse and Reveka’s final decision which seemed a little too fatalistic, and too abrupt, and also a little troubling. I understand it’s the author’s prerogative to build her world the way she/he deems it fit but I find it troubling that [SPOILER ALERT—HIGHLIGHT TO READ FURTHER] the survival of the underworld hinged on Reveka’s acceptance of herself as a bride to Dragos. Till that point, I seriously thought that our whiz-kid would find a herb-based solution while her romance with Dragos would proceed on its own pace without there being a forcing of hands, so to say.

Despite the quibble, I think it’s a story worth reading. Here’s one of my favorite bits:

I jumped when the door banged open and Pa’s voice asked, “Have you seen Mihas? He hasn’t been around all day.”

“No, I haven’t seen your apprentice.” Brother Cosmin answered.

“Wait—where’s Reveka? Did she go off with him?”

“Go off with him?” Brother Cosmin repeated, sounding surprised.

Pa’s voice was grim. “He’s got something of a crush on her.”

I buried my face in my hands. Why did Pa know this?

“Why would you think that means she’d go off with him?” Brother Cosmin asked.

A good question, Brother Cosmin! Why would Pa think that I’d be interested in a cowherd’s stupid crush and take up a dalliance with the boy—to the point of neglecting my work and letting Mihas neglect his? . . .

“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Brother Cosmin said. “She’s about as interested in Mihas as she is in my donkey. Which is to say she might stoop to giving him mashed juniper berries for his colic, but that’s about all the notice she pays either of them.”

Still Life With Breadcrumbs, Anna Quindlen

What I heard about Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs last year made me suspect that I would like it—and I was correct!

Still Life With Bread Crumbs is what I call a “quiet read,”—stories that focus more on a character’s inner life than on the externalities of that life. The external circumstances are still important but the emphasis is more on the character’s inner landscape, and how that changes as a result of the outside influences. Moreover, these influences tend to be more the slice-of-life variety than something exceptional. It’s almost like the author is parting the curtain on the character’s life for the period of the story.

Still Life With Bread Crumbs follows the life of Rebecca Winter in her 60th year. Quindlen’s revelations of Rebecca’s past (a New Yorker by birth), especially Rebecca’s marriage with a supercilious professor (a British academician), evokes the image of a very specific type of woman, a woman whose experience of life falls within a clearly circumscribed circle even though she happens to be an artist.

Broke, alone and feeling distinctly washed-up Rebecca is a photographer past her heyday—or as her son jokes, “the artist formerly known as Rebecca Winter.” Quindlen is really good at including little details that solidify this image of Rebecca as a certain type of woman in the reader’s mind. Only, as you continue to read, you come to realize, as does Rebecca herself, that “[h]er biography had all the trappings of sophistication but no actual sophistication at all.”

Am I making it sound too dry? Or too cerebral? It isn’t. Rebecca’s coming into her own as an artist and as a woman is heartfelt.

She had shot to fame with a series of photographs that in the eyes of the world “turned the impedimenta and the minutiae of women’s lives into unforgettable images.” For Rebecca however, her art is more “accidental” than the premeditated artistry that such a felicitation would seem to suggest:

Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she’d never felt that way. Over the years she’d made up a lot of reasons because people didn’t seem to like the arbitrariness of the reality. They also didn’t believe that she’d simply photographed what was already there—a bottle lying on its side with a puddle of olive oil shimmering along its curved lip, a handful of greasy forks glistening in the overhead lights, and of course what was later still called Still Life with Bread Crumbs, a vaguely Flemish composition of dirty wineglasses, stacked plates, the torn ends of two baguettes, and a dish towel singed at one corner by the gas stove.

(I have no clue about art but I think I would very much like a piece like Quindlen describes here. There’s something inherently appealing about it.)

Rebecca’s (and Quindlen’s) insistence that art is as much about being in the right place at the right time as about anything else really resonates with me.

As she begins taking photographs of a series of crosses that she keeps coming across, Rebecca vocalizes that:

She had not labored over them, or transformed them with the gift of her eye, at least not so she could tell. She just felt them.

This. . . feeling, this recognition of the ordinary being suffused with the luminous, reminded me of a line from a Marilynne Robinson interview that really struck me:

Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

Interwoven through Rebecca’s rekindling as an artist is the story of her unexpected romance with Jim Bates. Jim is decent, kind, and “the first man [Rebecca had] ever been with who had calluses.”

My favourite scene between the two is probably when Jim kisses Rebecca to her utter surprise:

“This is ridiculous. How old are you?”

“I was 44 last month,” he finally said, putting his glass down emphatically.

“Oh my God.” . . . “I am 60 years old.”

“Right. So what? You look great.” . . .

“That was not why I told you how old I was. It was so you would understand how ridiculous it would be to— ”





“Ludicrous. Hell, that’s even worse than ridiculous,” he said, and . . . walked back out into the snow. . . .

For most of her life she had not been what anyone would call an emotional person, but at odd, quiet, unexpected times . . . sentiment got the better of her.

“Oh my goodness,” she said and burst into tears, and sobbed loudly. . . .

Then the dog stepped back, sat down at attention, and let out one sharp bark. In a moment she heard the sound he’d heard. . . .

“This is ludicrous,” Jim said, and without moving removing his parka he put his arms around her and kissed her and kissed her, wet and cold and covered with snow as he was.

That use of ludicrous makes me chuckle, not in a laugh-out-loud way but in a quiet, life-can-be-unexpectedly-funny way. In fact there’s a thread of of wry humor running throughout the story.

I very much enjoyed how Quindlen conveys that love is love, no matter the age. The scenes between Jim and Rebecca are infused with that “new love” feel with all its attendant hopes, and anxieties. Let me be clear that romance is not the main focus of the story—Rebecca is. But that’s what makes the romance more interesting, embedded as it is in the larger context of Rebecca’s life:

One day she had been out walking and she had wondered whether she’d become a different person in the last year . . . Then when she really thought about it she realized she’d been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed, or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she’d thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product. Now she wasn’t sure what that might be, especially when she considered how sure she had been about it at various times in the past, and how wrong she’d been.

If that sounds too expository for your tastes, well, this might not be the book for you. This is, after-all, a parting of the curtain on Rebecca Winter’s 60th year of life.