“A view? How delightful a view is!” E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View

A Room with a View

E. M. Forster

Originally published in 1908.  One of Forster’s earlier novels, published before his first major success, Howard’s End and well before his masterpiece,  A Passage to India.   I haven’t read either of these yet but they are both on the Guardian list.

The version I read was part of a compilation published in 1993 by Gramercy Books.  It also contains Howard’s End and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Approximately 150 pages.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Love Titles.

Phew.  At first I thought I had run into my first Guardian 1,000 reads that I really didn’t like.  The story of a young middle class English girl who almost marries the wrong man is so full of obnoxious characters that I thought I wouldn’t be able to stomach it.

First of all, the girl herself, Lucy Honeychurch,  is so self-centered and clueless that you want to shake her.  She is completely stifled by her conventional and stultified family and friends.  The plot of the story is simple:  Lucy travels to Italy with a hysterically repressed older gentlewoman-cousin.  She meets a variety of equally parochial English folks who are barricaded in their pension hotel and only venture out with the safety of a guide-book or with fellow-English travelers.  These are all people who could travel around the world and never see a thing because their minds and hearts are closed to anyone different from themselves.

But Lucy and her cousin run into two original and free thinking characters:  a father and son, who immediately insist on changing rooms with them because the older gentleman hears the two ladies complaining that their room lacks a view.  This overture throws the chaperone cousin into a tizzy but she accepts despite her horror at this incredibly unconventional offer.

Throughout the rest of the book, the concept of a “view” comes up time and time again to symbolize how open to others, differences and new ways of thought an individual can be.  The father and son have a view but they can give it away happily because they are already in possession of open and generous hearts.  Other characters are blind to the views around them — despite how glorious the sights may be — because of their conventional and bigoted opinions.  Or for others, like Lucy’s mother, the view represents a privileged way of life:

“Very well.  Take your independence and be gone.  Rush up and down and round the world….Despise the house that your father built and the garden that he planted, and our dear view– and then share a flat with another girl.”

Lucy returns from Italy and gets engaged to a horrific prig — Cecil Vyse.  By the way, some of the names in the book are wonderful — Honeychurch elicits thoughts of sweetness and spiritual life.  A kindred spirit who helps Lucy understand herself is Rev. Beebe — and I wondered if he is meant to be the bee to her honey.  The horrible fiance, Vyse, wants to trap Lucy in a vice-like grip of conventionality and mean spiritedness.  Another character who urges Lucy to see and live more sports the surname, Lavish.  Fun stuff.

Coincidentally, the free-thinking father and son return to England and rent the villa near Lucy’s family home.  As Lucy gets closer to the son, she begins to question the view she thought she had of her future life.

So, what view will Lucy choose: the prescribed and unchanging view of her parents, the closed wall of her fiance and his clique, or the free independence of seeing the world anew and being open and loving to the opportunities it presents?  I had a fun time finding out the answer, although I can’t say the ending was a big surprise.  This wasn’t one of my favorite Guardian Challenge titles, but I’m certainly glad I read it and I know it has changed my view as well.

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Venus Suppressed

Birth of Venus cover

The Birth of Venus

Sarah Dunant

Random House.  2004.  403 pgs with book club questions.

Other books I’ve read by Sarah Dunant:  none, so far.  In the Company of the Courtesan looks promising!

Sorry, spoilers!!

This was a very good historical fiction novel, that missed the mark of excellence — much like the main character’s evaluation of her own fresco painting:  “…one might say it was the work of an…artist…who did her best and deserves to be remembered as much for her enthusiasm as for her achievement.” (pg. 391).  It left me frustrated because it could have been really fantastic, but at the end it brought me back down to earth with a let-down.

There was a lot that worked well in the novel.  Dunant’s prose is matchless; there is never a false or awkward phrasing anywhere.  I hate when authors try to recreate “authentic” historical speech patterns and phrases and Dunant doesn’t.  The characters are truly wonderful:  even the minor characters down to a simple-minded kitchen maid who plays a crucial role are fully formed.  Villains are understandable and authentic.  As for plot, I don’t think you could have a more fascinating historical backdrop than Florence at the end of the 1400’s during the waning of Medici power and the ascendency and fall of the dictator-friar, Savonarola.

So, what about the plot?  The main character, Alessandra Cecchi is a pampered and spoiled daughter of a newly-wealthy cloth merchant.  But Alessandra has a secret.  Coltish and a little awkward, Alessandra was educated with her brothers (one a dolt, the other a fop — more on that in a minute) so as a result her sharp mind and sharper tongue openly revolts against her fate to be a baby-breeding doll-wife of some wealthy man.  Alessandra’s secret passion is art and she hungers to be part of Florence’s brilliant art scene.  When her father brings home a silent and mysterious Northern (where North, this is never made clear) artist to decorate the family chapel, Alessandra is drawn to the man in a mix of jealousy and thwarted passion.  She begs the artist (who is never named) to guide her and teach her — and even shows him her secret drawings.   But spending time alone with a strange man is completely outside the norms of Alessandra’s society, a fact that even she understands.  Finally, to escape her stifled role as an unmarried daughter, Alessandra accepts the proposal of an older, wealthy man of noble family who offers her the freedom to paint.  Naive and innocent, Alessandra accepts, not understanding that her fiance is a homosexual seeking the cover of marriage to continue his pursuits of male lovers — especially her own brother.

The plot rolls on against the tumultuous events of the waning of Medici power — including Pietro Medici’s ineptitude and disgrace, and the subsequent invasion of French troops.  The collapse of Medici power and the republic brings on the fanatical rule of Savonarola — who calls all Florence to cleanse itself and return to God.  Savonarola and his army of “angels” have a particular bent toward suppressing women and homosexuals (hmmm….history always repeats itself) and Alessandra’s subsequent affair with her mysterious painter-lover, her husband and brother’s downfalls and disappearances, her pregnancy, the plague, birth of her little daughter, widowhood (although not really), the arrest of Savonarola all start to blend together with a frantic crescendo that leaves you gasping.  Somehow all mixed into this are a series of brutal murder-mutilations that never seem to be solved….or make you think, wait a minute, did Alessandra’s brother do them (the dolt, not the fop).  Herein lies the book’s failure.  I think Dunant just bit off a bit more than she could chew, or fresco.  There were confused references to Michelangelo here and there in the book — was he Alessandra’s unnamed lover and the father of her child?  Alessandra’s husband left her a precious manuscript that I think was illustrated by Botticelli — was that why the book is entitled, The Birth of Venus — after Botticelli’s masterpiece?  But Botticelli was never introduced as a character in the book and the illustrations are supposed to be of Dante’s Inferno — not the beautiful painting of Venus on the half-shell.  So, what was the connection?  At the end, Alessandra retires to a convent with her baby daughter and her faithful maidservant.  Her lover-artist comes to her once more after the passing of years.  She lets him take her daughter away with him to ….somewhere where the girl can be free and express her own artistic talent.  After they leave, Alessandra has her maidservant tattoo most of her upper body with a sexy snake.  Not too long after that, she kills herself and leaves us this story as her memoir.

No, uh-uh, I’m not making that one up.  I’m sorry, at that point I just wanted to say, hey, come on.  I think what Dunant was trying to say was:  women — we can’t be suppressed.  Even if our art is a secret snake tattoo, we’ll keep making it.  I get that, but I was disappointed and kind of sad.  I was hoping that Alessandra would lead history’s first all-woman graffiti gang to protest the suppression of love, art and women — or something along those lines.  Or take off after her lover and her daughter to join them in their new free life.  That would have been the ending I would have liked to see:  a true birth and renaissance, not a sad and quiet death of an interesting and talented character.  All in all, this wasn’t a bad book — but with the terrific material, writing and characterization, I think Dunant had the making of a masterpiece.  Unfortunately, this was not one.