The summer holidays are almost over, and I’m back from warmer climes. Santorini and Crete were heavenly, and although I don’t have the tan to prove it, they were both very warm. As always, I wasn’t half as organised as I thought I was. On route to the airport I realised I hadn’t packed Jacob’s Folly by Rebecca Miller. Luckily, I had brought along the #GGBookClub’s July/August read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, so there wasn’t (much) danger of me running out of material while I was away. Here are my thoughts on my Summer Reads:
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
In 1941 Virginia Woolf walked into the river at Richmond and drowned, but her words lived on. Her writing and her death have consequences that ripple through to the 1980s. In the 1940s Mrs. Brown, a housewife and mother retreats into the pages of Mrs. Dalloway to escape the pressure and anxiety of a life lived in servitude of others. In the 1980s, Clarissa Vaughan is preparing to throw her former lover and friend Richard a party to celebrate his winning a prestigious literary award.
Cunninghams’s novel mimics Woolf’s effortless style. He uses stream-of-consciousness to slip between past and present as each woman reflects on her history and her present predicament, much in the way that Clarissa Dalloway reminisces in Woolf’s book. In the 1980s, he flits between the perspective of Clarissa Vaughan and a passer-by easily in the same sentence, the way Woolf does so beautifully in Mrs. Dalloway, the transitions so subtle you could miss them.
Clarissa of the 1980s is similar to Woolf’s character in many ways. Both Mrs. Dalloway and Clariss are preparing for a party that causes them to reflect on their choices. They are both in relationships that span across many years, and while affectionate, lack passion. Their daughters are equally out of reach. Organising the party for Richard, allows Clarissa to bury the more serious issues. Richard even calls her ‘Mrs. Dalloway’.
In the 1940s, Mrs. Brown reads to distract herself, using books the way Clarissa uses her party. As she prepares for her husband’s birthday with her young son, she starts reading Mrs. Dalloway and muses on the author’s fate. Listless, she has been trapped in a conventional and uneventful life by society’s expectations. She turns to desperate actions to escape; driving to a hotel to read alone.
Virginia Woolf’s sections shone out for me. The tenderness of her relationship with her husband shows a true partnership. The struggle between her rational mind and her illness are excellently portrayed. I have always found her such a fascinating individual and her strength of character really shone through.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus was last month’s book for the #GGBookClub and wasn’t supposed to be on my summer read pile. It wasn’t even on my list of books to read, but I enjoyed Little Women and Fangirl, and there’s nothing more satisfying than a good book that takes you by surprise. This was definitely one of those books.
A fantastical circus tours the world by night, appearing one day and vanishing the next. Over time Le Cirque des Reves and its unique performances acquire devoted followers who pursue it eagerly from country to country. But the circus is home to a secret challenge where real magic takes place.
The Night Circus covers a lot of ground both physically and metaphorically. It’s a story that spans over decades, from before the circus’ inception to a moment where it could all fall apart. It stretches across continents too. The narrative moves from past to present, from England to America, leaving the reader piecing things together until the end. It’s rich in plot, so much so that it’s hard to condense it into two or three lines without feeling you have missed out most of the important details, but it’s an immersive read as well. Every sight, sound and texture is described without bogging the reader down. Toffee apples, warm caramel, velvety fabrics, bleached white flames – the surroundings are consistently reinforced to the reader, bringing the circus to life.
The characters are well-developed. The two rivals in the magical competition are the products of their opposite upbringings but at the same time they are fighting against it. Celia Bowen is the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter, a stage magician who uses real magic over tricks. Celia has inherited his natural talent and her father encourages her development with rigorous practical training. Her opponent Marco Alisdair is an orphan, adopted by her father’s old tutor. He spends his childhood in solitude, learning through reading, with very little contact with his tutor. As adults, Marco is meticulous, planning his enchantments in notebooks while Celia works intuitively. The question is which approach will win, and at what cost?
The side characters each have their own back story and their own demons. The female characters were particularly strong. Despite the time period, they are powerful and uncompromising individuals with clear identities. The circus has freed them of the constraints other women of that time would have experienced. Morgenstern’s interpretation of magic felt original. By manipulating pre-existing objects, Marco and Celia turned the everyday into something fantastical. I think that’s what the circus represented for many people and that’s why so many people followed it.