Bastard Out of Carolina

We’ve certainly had a run of incredibly good books for our book group choices this year. Last month’s book, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, was one I hadn’t heard of before but the cover was so gorgeous I had to go and get myself a physical copy of the book instead of a kindle download. Don’t you love it when a cover hooks you like that?

There was also a recommendation from Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite writers and author of The Poisonwood Bible, which also further provoked my interest and she wasn’t wrong. Bastard Out of Carolina isn’t an easy read but it is brilliant. Brilliant because Allison manages to keep the tension simmering just below the surface, occasionally unleashing it, and then dropping in scenes of such domestic love and comfort that you forget the danger that lurks just behind the half-closed door.

Set in Carolina in the 50s, Allison’s novel centres on a large white-trash family with colourful characters and histories who love and fight their way through life. Our heroine Bone is the illegitimate daughter of teenage Mama, the youngest and fairest of her large, boisterous family. There are no ends to suitors but she falls for a charmer traveling through town who vanishes as soon as she gets pregnant. Nevertheless determined to correct Bone’s birth certificate, she faces the moral contempt of self-righteous officials at the town hall who refuse to change Bone’s legal status but she keeps trying year after year. Then she falls in love and marries a sweet young man who is ready to adopt Bone but who meets with an accident and Mama is left grieving with two little girls. Forsaking love, she works at the local diner until her brother Earl brings Glen, an intense young colleague who is the outcast son of a well-to-do local family with daddy issues. Glen is patient and woos Mama over a year and she gradually falls in love with this brooding young man who has been so starved of love and decides to marry him only after he promises to love both her and her girls. Blinded by her love for him, she fails to acknowledge his many complexes, especially when he cannot hold down a steady job without getting into fights. But Glen loves her and she loves him and they both believe that it will all come together. That is until tragedy strikes.

It’s pretty early on in the novel, but this loss coincides with a shocking incident that will completely derail the reader. Up until then, you may be forgiven if you think Bastard Out of Carolina is all about big families and poverty. The novel takes a decidedly darker tone and you see what menace lurks beneath the surface. Allison tackles the fragile structures of love and families through the secrets we keep from each other. And throughout this, the crux is Bone, so young, so alone and trying desperately to keep her small, precious family from falling apart. What Allison does so brilliantly is intersperse scenes of Daddy Glen’s anger within their nuclear family with the warm, protective nature of Bone’s extended family with her larger than life aunts and uncles who would do anything to protect their kin. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have problems of their own, what with their fighting, alcohol abuse and infidelities all casting a shadow across their lives. And yet they are in stark contrast to the cold, unwelcoming family in which Daddy Glen grew up and to whom he stubbornly brings his little family once a year to visit whether they like it or not.

As a psychological study, Daddy Glen is a classic case of the youngest son who didn’t grow into his potential and who is forever trying to please his successful father and two older brothers. But the most interesting character in this novel is Mama, who stays with Daddy Glen even though she knows things are not quite right in their house. Even after witnessing his harsh punishment for Bone’s adolescent transgressions, she makes a half-hearted effort to leave him but returns when he begs for forgiveness. For Daddy Glen, Mama is the love of his life. And so it becomes even harder to understand the motives behind his actions, even if you look to his unhappy childhood.

The bits that I liked the most were those describing Mama’s family. You see her bond with her siblings, their love for each other coming through so strongly at family gatherings, holidays and over food. The colourful histories of each individual are so captivating that you wish you were a part of their brood. And yet they weren’t enough to shield Bone.

Bastard Out of Carolina, like all the best books, leaves you with even more questions at the end. It’s dark and devastating but pierced with moments of such warmth and joy, that it will remain long in your heart. The inevitable ending may be more than you can bear but what happens after will truly break your heart.

Allison says that so many of her readers have told her that she has written their story and we can see why. She gets into the head of Bone so well, putting into words the confusing, constantly shifting feelings of fear, pain and anger which a child cannot fully express. She doesn’t sentimentalise or rationalise these thoughts, she just puts them down as they are. When everything is stripped away, what remains is Bone’s resilience. Although not autobiographical, nevertheless we can see parallels to Allison’s own childhood. Perhaps what she really wanted to explore was her mother’s choices. I’m not a fan of depressing novels and I read this was trepidation, dreading what was to come, but such is the power of Allison’s writing that I couldn’t keep myself from finishing this incredible novel.

Advertisements

Grass is Singing

August’s book group choice by Kim was Doris Lessing’s debut novel published in 1950, The Grass is Singing. A Nobel Prize Laureate and author of many novels including The Golden Notebook, I had heard so much about Lessing and yet felt slightly afraid to read her.

The Grass is Singing is set in Southern Rhodesia in the 1940s and begins with the murder of Mary Turner by her black servant Moses. In a land where strict racial rules are the means by which the white colonisers maintain their control, any untoward issues that don’t fit in with white society’s ideas of how people should act is quickly and unsentimentally cleared away, untouched. Mary’s murder is cleared as one catalysed by greed. But what Lessing does so beautifully here is to go back in time to find out who Mary Turner was to see why she had to die. And what unravels is a tense, bleak tale of a woman, once happy in her independance and freedom, who is gradually stifled and suffocated by society’s expectations and petty rules.

Free at last from her poverty-stricken childhood, a young Mary is living a happy and carefree life in town, working as a secretary and living in a girls hostel where she is never without friends and things to do. She is happy to carry on in this way, having no need for a husband or a house of her own until she overhears her friends ridiculing her behind her back. This sudden shock instigates a paradigm shift in her world view and sets her on a course which she may not have otherwise chosen. She is nothing if not proactive and immediately changes the way she dresses and goes on several unsuccessful dates, making her unhappy and suspicious of other people’s motives. That is until she meets Martin Turner, up in town for the day, a shy, awkward young man who spends most of his time alone working on his farm. Although they feel no attraction to each other, nevertheless, Martin is lonely and Mary needs to get married, and so this happens before they get to really know one another. Mary is happy to leave the town that has soured and Martin is eager to start a family once he has made his farm profitable and has enough money. But life on a farm in the middle of nowhere is far from the life Mary ever envisioned for herself, as is the lack of money. Martin is kind, if not stubborn, but the evergrowing failures of all his ventures quickly grinds down her respect for him. Mary is also uncommunicative and cold and Martin soon realises that his idea of a warm family life may never materialise. And yet the two continue in this vein, Mary slowly succumbing to ennui and depression as the heat gets to her, ever relentless, and her encounters with the natives who work for Martin are fraught with suspicion and trouble. The two are bound together in their wretched house, isolated, and what happens is a slow disintegration of will.

Until Moses, one of Martin’s workers, comes to work for Mary in the house. His arrival acts as catalyst, suddenly awakening Mary out of her stupor and bringing up complex emotions that highlights the subtly fraught relations that exist between servant and master, family and friend.

And then there is Charlie Slatter, Martin’s neighbour and local kingpin who overseas the social and agricultural goings on in the area. He is the one whom they contact first when Mary’s body is found. He is the one organising and directing the police sergeant who arrives later. And he is the one who makes sure that no extra detail is leaked to the papers. For his duty is to keep the status quo and protect their own.

In The Grass is Singing, Lessing binds together a number of important issues; the segregation and treatment of the natives, the unspoken social rules from which you cannot veer and the limited roles within which women can exist in that time. For Mary, she was doomed if she didn’t get married, and she was doomed when she did. What is perhaps poignant is that ultimately both Mary and Martin aren’t exactly bad people. Martin is generally friendly towards his native workers, with a deep understanding of how things work in his country, if not his occupation. Mary starts off carefree, independant and happy, and probably her sole mistake is to get hitched without really thinking things through. What the the pair want are two different things, and because they are gauche and awkward at communicating, are like two cars just missing each other in the fog. Unable to really talk, they just keep diverging in thought and deed.

Lessing has created an incredibly nuanced yet striking novel. But there are so many questions which remain unanswered. What exactly was Mary’s relationship with Moses? What at first seemed as though it could have been a forbidden attraction turned out just to be fear. And yet, it was more than that. Charlie Slatter may have tried to tidy the murder as one committed by an angry and greedy servant, yet Moses’ feelings for Mary, although at the end seemed to be of power, had something more. What was it? Mary, though she needed Moses for her survival, much, much more than Martin, could never overcome her fear of him. And Moses, who knew he had power over her, didn’t leave because he knew she needed him. This strange, complex power relationship rings so true because it is pretty much the essence of relationships in its basic form. It stuns me to think that Lessing is able to convey this together with that of a marital couple, friends and neighbours to produce such a layered first novel. And leaving the central question unanswered may have been a stroke of genius. For what remains puzzling is precisely what will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

Lessing’s novel is nothing less than a novel about power in its many nuanced form. And she does this subtly and beautifully.

Master and Margarita 2

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the books I purchased from what used to be Dillons on Gower Street, now Waterstone’s, when I was an earnest student trying to broaden my knowledge of literature. As a science undergrad, I spent hours in the bookshop perusing books to read rather than face my sums. With one aborted attempt many years ago, I assumed it would be one of those novels I would get to at some point, even though so many of you have told me how much you loved it. So I was really happy when Polly decided it’ll be our next choice for our book group. It seems many of us had it tucked away on our shelves too.

At the beginning of the novel when the writers Berlioz and Bezdomny meet Woland, a suspicious individual claiming to be a magician, little do they know that this will throw Moscow into an upheaval leading up to Easter. Having been subjected to a vision of Pontius Pilate, they are naturally spooked and escape but this sets off a series of unfortunate events from Berlioz’s death to the sectioning of Bezdomny, the disappearance of his flatmate, the seizure of his prized Moscow flat and so on until everyone connected to each other has been randomly traumatised in some way. All orchestrated by Woland, who may or may not be the Devil, and his familiars, Azazel, the witch, the choirmaster and a humongous cat named Behemoth, they wreak havoc all over the city beginning with a huge magic show which throws the audience into hysteria when wads of cash appear and all the ladies are left disrobed. Bulgakov leads us on a merry chase through the absurdities of Moscow life from the privileged status of the literati to the paranoia aimed at foreigners, the shortage of good housing and food to the forbidden love that springs from unhappiness and ennui.

At the psychiatric hospital, Bezdomny meets the Master who has had his novel rejected and in his despair succumbed to madness and abandoned his lover. The Master had written about Pilate, the very same tale told by Woland, where we are again transported two thousand years back when the flawed Roman procurator of Yershalaim meets the one man who will change him but isn’t strong enough to save him.

In the second half of the book, we meet the Master’s lover Margarita, desperate to find him and wreak revenge on his critics. When Woland promises her whatever she wants, she agrees to do his bidding and becomes a witch, presiding over a spectacular ball where all the evil characters throughout history file through and are given their just desserts. But will she get what she deserves?

Reading the book, it struck me, as I am sure it did others, on the odd choice of the title. Both the Master and Margarita don’t appear in the novel until several chapters in, and even then, I’m not even sure whether they are the main protagonists, perhaps just vehicles to push through Bulgakov’s agenda. It’s a curiously difficult novel to characterise; from one angle, it is a comedy so like many Russian and European novels of the period with its nod to romanticism and artistic angst. And yet, there is always the spectre of violence which you cannot escape, Bulgakov’s present seeping into the fiction. Written between 1929 and 1940, The Master and Margarita was meant to be Bulgakov’s magnum opus even though he didn’t expect it to be published, what with his experiences with censorship and the tightening of freedom of expression which characterised Stalin’s rise to power. It’s at once a novel bridging the gap between the pre- and mid-Soviet eras, the former using only allusions to the present political state while maintaining some of the frivolity of an earlier age and the latter, the violence and paranoia revealed in full in the Master’s tale of Pontius Pilate.

The first half is much more sombre and complex than the second, possibly because it was more heavily edited. Bulgakov passed away soon after he finished his manuscript but without completing the editing. The Picador edition I read had notes and a detailed afterword which set the novel in context and gave a richer understanding of the novel. There is so much symbolism in The Master and Margarita and anyone who has read Goethe’s Faust would be in no doubt of the similarity although Bulgakov has made it his own and set it in the world he knows best. There are allusions to literary and musical figures throughout the novel and I particularly enjoyed Satan’s Grand Ball where Bulgakov introduces a slew of evil characters from history. However, what is with all the women being naked and men in tails? I just found it increasingly annoying that the female characters were either hags or witches, who are naked, naturally, although none of the men were drawn sympathetically either.

Bulgakov’s style is light and deft, his prose vibrant, colourful and visual. Woland’s visit to Moscow is just like a little break where they thoroughly enjoy themselves. And I really loved the bit at the end when Woland and his troupe return to their original forms, much more sombre and darker than what they exhibited on their holiday.

Although The Master and Margarita would benefit from a second reading once you realise the political and social implications of what Bulgakov is trying to convey, I really enjoyed reading this brilliantly bonkers novel. That satire is taken so seriously preventing publication for 26 years says much about the political regime. Even though the chapters set in Moscow may not come across as heavily Stalinesque, his reign of terror had already begun with arrests and disappearances and we see this in the increasingly crazy turn the novel takes as Bulgakov’s tale spins out of control.

Everything I Never Told You

Our book group choice for February was one I’d heard a lot of buzz about in the year past, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I didn’t know much about the premise before I started but it’s one of those books that as soon as you start, you get that feeling, you know that it’s one that is going to stay with you. And I was right.

Everything I Never Told You is a tale of an ordinary family with just one difference; theirs is a mixed-race Chinese American family, the only one in their town. In a small college town in middle America, this one difference will simultaneously change and shape everyone and everything that happens to them. It is 1977 and 16 year old Lydia Lee has gone missing from her bed. Her parents James and Marilyn are trying to piece together the events of the days just before her disappearance, while her brother and sister, Nathan and Hannah, are not sure whether they should share the secrets so sacrosanct amongst siblings. When Lydia’s body is found in the nearby lake, their family life splinters as all they have believed in for so long is torn apart. Who was Lydia? And what happened to her?

What Ng is so adept at doing is teasing out the secrets and hidden yearnings of her characters. Like any family that looks outwardly normal, there will always be dreams that have been crushed and silenced, the reality often harsh and unforgiving. And it is no different here. James Lee is a tenured professor at a small college after his dreams of staying on at Harvard is so easily taken away from him. The son of Chinese immigrants who took jobs as a gardener and cook at a prestigious school to give their son the opportunity to secure a place to study there if he is bright enough, James only yearns for a normal American life and to fit in. And he finds this in Marilyn, who has never wanted to be pedestrian but who puts on hold her dream of becoming a doctor, to marry the man she unexpectedly falls in love with. They are so in love with each other, yearning to leave behind their unhappy childhoods that they do not see their past shaping the future of their three children, heavy with so much expectation and stifling with love. When Marilyn, unable to let go of her dream of becoming a doctor, runs away to finish her degree, this acts as a catalyst and irrevocably changes the family dynamic.

Ng’s subtle manipulation of the shifting dynamics within the Lee family is so masterfully done that it is only as you read on that it slowly dawns on you what has happened. The silent pressure on Lydia to achieve high grades in science so that she can fulfill her mother’s dream of becoming a doctor. The silent fear she has that if she doesn’t comply, her mother will leave her again. How Nath’s heart breaks a little every time his father sees a bit of himself in his son and looks disappointed. And Hannah, the youngest, always forgotten, learning not to be in the way. As the children grow and begin to chafe under the yoke of their parents expectations, their usually strong sibling ties fracture and they rebel. Nath will apply to Harvard, the only way to get his father to acknowledge his worth and as Lydia’s grades decline, she starts spending more time with Jack, their neighbour and Nath’s childhood enemy, to punish him. Each character deals with their hurt, humiliation and anger in such different ways, trying to push away and yet always returning because they are family. It is difficult to imagine the isolation and the segregation James and his children experience, the racism that is never fully overt and yet of which they are hyper-aware but Ng does this gently but with devastating effect. The disapproval of Marilyn’s mother which Marilyn so casually brushes aside but which pierces James’ heart at their wedding. The swallowed dreams, the claustrophobia of a small homogenous town, a child’s future that has been mapped out in concrete. It’s all there.

Ng manages to weave all the different strands of each character’s story, in and out from the past to the present without leaving the current nightmare of Lydia’s demise. And as each layer is peeled back, and you glimpse the anger, regret and hurt that has been experienced and suppressed, it is almost a miracle that each of them can survive the fallout of a loved one’s death.

However sad Everything I Never Told You is, Ng has created a novel of such tenderness. Her writing is gorgeous and yet spare but it reaches an emotional depth and complexity that you rarely find. It’s a beautiful book and probably one of the best I’ve read so far this year.

NW by Zadie Smith

20 April, 2015

NW

It’s been almost 15 years since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth blew her onto the literary scene as a major star-in-making. I’ve only read her debut and some of her short stories and essays, her observations and detailed commentary belying her tender years but there’s something so assured and sassy about her point of view and style, a mixture of the postmodern with traditional literature which just works. Reading NW, a grittier take on her depiction of northwest London, a dampening of youthful hope reminded me a lot of her peer, David Mitchell. Both have easy styles which belie their literary mastery. You know you are in the hands of true writer.

NW follows the almost mid-life crises of two best friends from the Caldwell Estate in Willesden, Leah Hanwell of Irish and Keisha Blake of Jamaican descent. It is a strong female friendship bound by memories and an understanding both don’t fully comprehend, surviving different ideologies, work ethic and interests. And like all friendships, it weathers choosing different career paths, lovers, marriage and babies.

We start with Leah, working for a charity, married to the man she loves but not wanting his babies. She sees her life drifting by, aimless, living just metres away from Caldwell Estate from which her mother Pauline so desperately tried to get away. They have escaped but not quite. And so she compares herself to Keisha, or Natalie, as she’s now known, a successful barrister married to an investment banker with two beautiful kids. She has penetrated far enough into the upper middle classes from Caldwell for even Leah to feel she no longer knows her friend. And yet there is a terrible ennui from which the two just can’t seem to escape. For Natalie, Leah is the one tumbling from one adventure into another, from her friends spouting philosophy to activism and the ubiquitous dreads. For Leah, Natalie has always focused on moving forward and making something of herself, stoic and resolute. And then there is Felix, thirty-something and finally taking the first steps towards turning his life around: a new relationship, the ‘One’. And poor Nathan, unable to claw his way out of the sink estate, destined to be the one lurking around the same old streets, his acquaintances keeping a wary distance.

Smith’s rendering of northwest London with its multicultural mix of peoples and lives is deftly done. Not much happens, what does is a slow lurch, seemingly unstoppable, of the fracturing of these thirty-somethings’ lives. Is this what it’s all about, seems to be the refrain running through this novel. It seems as though all the characters are caught by surprise at what life has in store for them, unable to grasp the happiness which is supposed to be within their reach. For both Leah and Keisha, their imposter syndrome is drowning out their current happiness, their families unable to understand them.

Overall, one wouldn’t label this a feelgood novel. There is a bittersweet inevitability to what happens to the characters even though you want to shake them by the shoulders and desperately slap them back to reality. But Smith subtly inserts moments of comedy and ordinariness which remind you of the absurdities of childhood and adolescence, the innocence and simplicity which we all seem to lose along the way. I can’t say I sympathised or even understood what these characters are going through, especially Keisha, and yet there is something about Smith’s writing that keeps you glued to the page. She writes beautifully and there is an immediacy, a relevance to her work that is rooted in the present. It’s a portrait of modern urban Britain, one that isn’t often portrayed in a lot of contemporary fiction, and because of this, it is refreshing.

Many in my reading group had issues with NW and I can see why. The novel is described as being about four friends but it’s really about Leah and Keisha. Felix and Nathan’s stories seem incidental although it does tie together a pretty loose arc. And it’s not a particularly easy read. However, I really enjoyed it, especially the scenes with Felix’ much older ex-lover in what reminded me of a Soho championed by Rupert Everett. And Smith’s writing is also a delight. So I now want to read The Autograph Book and On Beauty.

Do also check out out Kim’s review.

Changeling

Never to whine; to accept what came; to wait for better; to take what you could; to let no one, not even yourself, know how near to giving in you were: these were his principles by which he lived…

Robin Jenkins’ novel, The Changeling, about a poor young boy from a Glasgow slum who is whisked away on a family holiday by his well-meaning but ultimately naïve teacher, is a startling account of the fallible and arrogant nature of altruism and superiority gone wrong.

Jenkins uses the character of Charlie Forbes and his do-gooding cloaked in good intentions and shortsightedness to show in sharp relief the desperate nature of a child born into poverty who possesses an uncanny intellect, survival skills and self-assuredness who comes to realise that there is no escape from his situation.

Donaldson’s Court, a slum in 50s Glasgow, is a wretched place reminiscent of Dickens’ Victorian London at its worst. Forbes’ well meaning belief born out of pity that two weeks on holiday with his family will bring some relief to Tom Curdie’s miserable existence is naïve at best and cruel at worst and so arrogant and misplace that he doesn’t realise this may have an adverse affect on his pupil, giving him false hope for a brighter future, something Tom realises early on and tries so hard to prevent. And yet, he is a child of twelve, starved of kindness, affection and stability, that a week away with a normal family irrevocably changes him and plunges him into further despair. And little does Forbes or the other adults realise this; so wrapped up in their petty drama of being fair and moral and trying to keep their indignation at bay that they are prepared to strike immediately if Tom goes out of line.

Everywhere in Towellan, in the garden among the rose-bushes, in the hut at night listening to the owl, on the lawn putting, even in the ruined castle with the sick rabbit, he was becoming convinced that this was the way of life he had always known and always would know; that at the end of the holiday he would return with the rest of the family, and would for the rest of his life be involved in their affairs as he was now; and that he would always have a bed to himself with clean sheet, and plenty of good food served on a table with a white cloth.

It is only Gillian, Forbes’ daughter who sees Tom for who he really is. At first suspicious of Tom’s motives in inveigling into her family, she is determined to expose him for the thief she knows him to be. And yet there is something about Tom which calls to her and she soon becomes the only one to see the tragic unfurling of Tom’s tightly held grasp on his emotions, something he has always hidden from everyone.

‘Did you,’ she asked, ‘did you steal those things in Woolworth’s because – because you didn’t want- to get – too fond of us?’

Expressed like that, almost angrily as if she was again accusing him, it was very far from saying what was in her heart to say. She felt not only pity and love for him in his terrible predicament, but also complicity with him. There was no way of explaining that.

Nevertheless he seemed to understand, and smiled with a gratitude she could not bear.

Jenkins’ storytelling is sparse, he draws the well-argued and dramatic emotions of the Forbes family with flair in sharp contrast to the controlled, spartan stance of Tom’s character. Forbes is poorly trained to deal with the invisible complex emotions swirling within his pupil and ultimately fails as a mentor and person. What starts as a silly, thoughtless whim quickly escalates into tragic proportions.

The Changeling is a tragic tale devoid of sentimentality. A beautifully drawn portrait of quiet suffering. Tom’s streetwise knowledge cannot help him against such mishandled naïveté. Inevitable yet heartbreaking.

I’m so glad Kim chose this for our book group otherwise I would never had heard of Robin Jenkins. There are layers to this novel which would benefit from many re-readings and I hope to do just that. A thoughtful and melancholic study of human fallibility and short-sightedness encapsulated by a fellow teacher’s description of Forbes:

The difference between you and me, Charlie, is this: if I passed a blind beggar with a tinny I’d drop in a couple of coppers and pass on, without giving him another thought but you’d be so damned indignant at such public misery and so busy blaming everybody else for it that you’d pass by without putting anything in at all.

Elective Affinities

I confess I’ve only read one book by Goethe which was Faust because who didn’t try that one as a student? But I don’t remember much of it and I probably raced through it without really thinking about it much. So although I’ve been wanting to try more of Goethe’s novels, I only retain memories of something dark and heavy. So what a revelation Elective Affinities turned out to be. Chosen as my October/November’s book group read, the novel showcased Goethe’s lightness of touch and acute sensibilities which are so finely tuned that you really feel you are in the presence of a master. What could so easily have turned into a heavy, dank romantic tragedy was saved by the relentless self questioning of his characters and their wish to do the right thing.

Elective Affinities begins with Charlotte and Eduard who has been given a second chance at love. No longer in their first flush of youth and having overcome previous life events that were orchestrated by others, they are now happily enjoying the freedom of their simple coupledom. Charlotte’s daughter is away at school and so they spend their days organising and designing their house and land at their pleasure. In fact all their time is taken with pleasure. Happy but getting a little bored of their monotonous life, a visit from a scandalous aristocratic couple embeds ideas of love and affairs which slowly take root in their minds. Their fidelity is tested when Eduard’s close friend, the Captain, and Charlotte’s niece, Ottilie who is unhappy at school, come to stay.

Goethe melds his views on romanticism with the scientific ideals and advances from the Age of Enlightenment that was fashionable in 19th century Europe to create a story which mirrors science. Elective affinities, a concept in chemistry where elements naturally gravitate towards their optimal counterpart, is used here to illustrate the romantic leanings of the four main characters.

Eduard, a dynamic man, begins to feel an affinity for Ottilie who is equally smitten, and succumbs to temptation, albeit platonic. However Charlotte and the Captain are a bit more reserved, battling with their morals even though their feelings for each other are as fierce. The main focus of the novel is the love affair between Eduard and Ottilie, a reflection and dissection of the ideals and reality of what love is.

However there were a few things that perplexed me. For example, why did everyone love Ottilie so much? Because she is young and innocent? Eduard who is actually married sees nothing wrong in his feelings and nor does Ottilie until towards the end of the tale. Only Charlotte and the Captain seem commendable but Goethe seems more sympathetic towards Eduard and Ottilie as though he holds them much higher up as his romantic ideal, that theirs is the great love story with so many obstacles when in fact they could have really gotten together at any point. Ottilie’s refusal of Eduard doesn’t seem to have a moral aspect to it, more as a whim and feels self-indulgent. And personally I felt Eduard comes very close to being the villain of the piece, acting as though his marriage to Charlotte meant nothing. It seems as though he was going through a mid-life crisis and as a result I found it very difficult to sympathise with him. In fact, all the characters felt a little flat, especially the female characters, except for Charlotte’s aristocratic friends who revel in their scandalous lives. At least they don’t pretend to be good. And although there are tragic consequences to the choices these characters make, Goethe’s light touch stops short of making Elective Affinities a tragedy or even a moral tale, leaving the reader feeling rather confused.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve finished the book but I’m still wondering about the characters in Elective Affinities, especially Ottilie and Eduard. I wonder whether Goethe was drawing a parallel to himself and his own choices in life. However, the novella certainly made for an interesting discussion and I most certainly would like to read more by Goethe.

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.