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Kitty & Virgil
Kitty & Virgil
by Paul Bailey
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Kitty and Virgil, 24 Nov 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Kitty & Virgil (Paperback)
Beautiful Kitty Crozier, an editor in the middle years of her life, wakes up after an operation in hospital to find a stranger smiling down at her; months later in a London park she encounters the stranger again and discovers he is Virgil Florescue, a dissident poet who escaped Ceausescu's Romania by swimming across the Danube. As their relationship develops, and Kitty and Virgil become lovers, the reader learns of their unusual backgrounds, of their extraordinary families, and of the cast of interesting characters that surround them. Set in the 1980s during the build-up to the collapse of Romania's Communist regime, but also moving backwards and forwards in time, we read of Kitty and her twin sister, Daisy, and of their fractured relationship with their handsome, dissolute and serial philanderer father, the feckless Felix; we meet Felix's close companion, an ex-butler and absolute master of the put-down, Derek Harville; we learn of Virgil's past life in Romania, of his very close relationship with his mother, of the devastating discovery of a barbaric act carried out by his father during the Second World War, and of Virgil's deep sense of guilt and his feelings that he should atone for his father's crimes.

This unusual novel is beautifully written and is so rich in characters - all of them interesting, many of them eccentric, some of them wonderfully bizarre - that I was sorry to leave them behind and wished I could have learnt more about almost each and every one of them. The repartee between Derek Harville and Kitty's father, Felix, is bitingly funny and even Virgil's landlady - a former opera singer who looks after him 'like a mother' when he is ill and who tells him: "I wasn't the motherly type in my younger days. I loathed small children with a vengeance. I would have out-Heroded Herod" - comes totally to life even though she only appears for a few pages. A story of family, but also a beautiful love story interwoven with Romanian folklore, politics and history, this novel also looks at how events from the past can cast very long shadows. Although hauntingly sad in places, this is a warm, entertaining and worthwhile read and, if you enjoy something a little different, then this is a novel I find easy to recommend.

5 Stars.


Moon Island
Moon Island
by Rosie Thomas
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Moon Island, 23 Nov 2014
This review is from: Moon Island (Paperback)
Set in Maine, in New England, Rosie Thomas's story focuses on fourteen-year-old May Duhane, her father, John, a widower, and her eighteen-year-old sister, Ivy, who arrive at the coast one summer to rent Captain's House, one of five old clapboard houses set on a secluded beach, looking out towards the sea. May, an unhappy, overweight, solitary young girl, who is still mourning the loss of her mother, feels isolated and resentful when her lovely, long-limbed sister makes friends with the Beam family who live in one of the other houses on the beach - particularly the very attractive, tanned and pony-tailed Lucas Beam, who makes a beeline for Ivy. Living at the Beam house is self-appointed matriarch Marian Beam, who is Lucas's grandmother, and her large tribe of sons, daughters and grandchildren, all down for the summer, including Marian's daughter-in-law, the unhappily childless Leonie, who finds herself attracted to the widowed John Duhane. In one of the other houses lives Elizabeth Newton, an elderly widow, who regrets a decision she made in the past and who reveals her secret to May; then there is Judith Stiegels, a sculptor, and her overly-affable husband, Marty; and further along the coast live year-round residents Aaron and Hannah Fennymore, whose past is unhappily tied up with Elizabeth Newton's. As the days of the summer holiday pass and Ivy becomes increasingly intimate with Lucas, and John becomes more friendly with Leonie than perhaps is wise, May, who is feeling left out, hides away in her bedroom, where she discovers a diary written by Doone Bennison, the teenaged daughter of the owners of Captain's House, who tragically drowned the previous summer. Identifying with Doone, who before her death confessed in her diary about her romantic obsession with an unnamed man living in one of the houses on the beach, May begins to feel that maybe it is her fate to follow in Doone's footsteps, especially when she encounters a strange and ghostly apparition on Moon Island. (No spoilers - we become aware of all of this part-way into the novel).

I have been given several of Rosie Thomas's novels and I am working my way through them, finding some better than others. There were parts to this particular story that I enjoyed, such as the author's descriptions of the clapboard houses and their interiors, and Rosie Thomas is good at creating interesting characters and dilemmas for those characters - but there are so many of them in this book that it is difficult to become more than barely acquainted with any of them. There is also another strand to this story - one that is set in the past and brings into play a supernatural element (I cannot explain further without revealing spoilers) which I think the story could have done without. There was, for me, just too much going on in a book of less than 350 pages and I feel the author should have decided to focus either on telling a convincing tale of love, loss and family dynamics - which, in part, this novel was - or on writing an unsettling story about unhappy spirits reaching from beyond the grave into the present day - which I didn't find to be a very credible or enjoyable aspect of this particular story. All of that said, I have read some of the author's other novels which have worked quite well for undemanding holiday reads, but I do have to be honest and voice my reservations about this one.

2.5 Stars.


Felicia's Journey
Felicia's Journey
by William Trevor
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A Grim but Gripping Tale, 21 Nov 2014
This review is from: Felicia's Journey (Paperback)
Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1994, William Trevor's 'Felicia's Journey' tells the story of a naive seventeen-year-old girl who, seduced by her lover, Johnny, finds herself pregnant, and decides to make the journey across the Irish Sea to England in the attempt to find him. Arriving in the Midlands, with only the briefest details of where to find Johnny, Felicia unsurprisingly fails to locate him; she does, however, find instead Mr Hilditch, a strange, lonely individual whom, we are led to believe, has only his job as a catering manager and his enjoyment in food to keep him interested in life. Initially, both Felicia and the reader are encouraged to feel sorry for the middle-aged, solitary and hugely overweight Mr Hilditch, but as we read on, we begin to see another side to him - a rather unsettling side, and then there is mention of other young, homeless girls he has befriended, but we are not told quite what exactly has happened to them. To say more would reveal spoilers, but suffice it to say that Felicia soon finds herself in a rather precarious situation...

As expected from William Trevor, this is a well-written and involving story, but it's also a surprisingly tense and rather grim tale, and although I was not entirely convinced by the ending, I was gripped by the increasingly unsettling narrative and started and finished this book in one sitting, staying up late so that I could discover exactly what would happen to our hapless young heroine. The author's creation of the sinister Mr Hilditch was very well-accomplished and his descriptions of Hilditch's large, oppressive house with its dark hallways, heavily plastered ceilings, old-fashioned gas lamps, and its rooms filled with heavy pieces of mahogany furniture, almost made me feel as if I had stumbled onto the set of Hitchcock's 'Psycho'. An unusual and disconcerting story with a bit of a twist in the tale, and one which although I would have preferred a slightly different ending, still kept me interested and absorbed throughout its entire length.


The Making of Markova: Diaghilev's Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon
The Making of Markova: Diaghilev's Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon
by Tina Sutton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

4.0 out of 5 stars The Making of Markova, 18 Nov 2014
World-famous ballerina, Alicia Markova, was not Russian as her adopted name suggests, but British, and was born Lilian Alicia Marks into a Jewish family in England in 1910, the same year that the legendary Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, made her first appearance on the London Stage. A shy, frail child with flat feet, knock knees and weak legs, Alicia started ballet lessons when her mother, an ardent ballet fan, was advised that learning to dance might help strengthen Alicia's legs and feet. Alicia took to ballet lessons with application and enthusiasm, and she was soon surprising her teachers and fellow students with her astonishing talent, earning herself the title of 'The Child Pavlova'. In fact, by the age of fourteen, her dancing skills were so impressive that when Sergei Diaghilev saw her dance, she was accepted into the Ballets Russes as his 'baby ballerina' - the youngest ever dancer to be offered a place in the renowned ballet company.

At the Ballets Russes, Alicia received music tutelage from Igor Stravinsky; she took dance lessons with ballet master, Enrico Cecchetti; she worked with choreographer, George Ballanchine, and had her costumes designed by Henri Matisse; and through a combination of natural talent and very hard work, she began to develop a technical brilliance that soon had her winning solo roles and the respect and envy of those in the dancing world. Tiny in stature (as an adult dancer she sometimes struggled to maintain seven stones in weight) and with size 2.5 feet (all of her ballet shoes had to be made specially for her), Alicia Markova seemed to defy gravity, as she appeared to fly through the air and land 'like a snowflake'. Her career was long and varied; she worked with Olga Spessivtseva, Serge Lifar, Ninette de Valois, Bronislava Nijinska, Leonide Massine, Michel Fokine, Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, amongst others, and although Alicia Markova achieved fame and, eventually, some measure of fortune, her life was not without its difficulties and heartaches, as Tina Sutton's colourful biography reveals.

This is a well-researched and detailed biography of a very talented and hard-working artist, who believed that ballet should be for everyone, not just for the elite. As the author informs us towards the close of her biography, Alicia Markova was Britain's first 'prima ballerina assoluta'; she was credited with pioneering British ballet in the 1930s; she was instrumental in the creation and early success of every ballet company formed in England: Ballet Rambert, The Sadler's Wells (now The Royal Ballet) and The Festival Ballet (currently The English National Ballet); and she brought ballet to the provinces for the first time. When she retired in her fifties, Alicia Markova was committed to sharing and passing on her knowledge, and she continued to do this well into her old age.

Tina Sutton, a fashion and arts writer for 'The Boston Globe', has packed her 600+ page biography with facts, diary and letter excerpts, newspaper reviews, interviews, anecdotes and quotes, and most of this makes for fascinating reading. The writing style is very accessible and informal - however, I was surprised by some of the almost 'slangy' language used on occasion, and if I am entirely honest, I feel the author relied a little too much on the use of block quotations and extracts from other sources to support her own narrative - often including several excerpts from different publications, all reporting the same event, which I thought was a little unnecessary at times. That said, being an enthusiast of the ballet and having spent a substantial part of my life either watching or taking part in ballet, I found this biography an informative, entertaining and enjoyable read. If reading this has aroused your interest in Dame Alicia, do take a look at YouTube which has a selection of film clips of the dancer both performing and coaching younger dancers, which makes for very interesting viewing.

4 Stars.


The Making of Markova - Diaghilev's Baby Ballerine to Groundbreaking Icon
The Making of Markova - Diaghilev's Baby Ballerine to Groundbreaking Icon
by Tina Sutton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The Making of Markova, 18 Nov 2014
World-famous ballerina, Alicia Markova, was not Russian as her adopted name suggests, but British, and was born Lilian Alicia Marks into a Jewish family in England in 1910, the same year that the legendary Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, made her first appearance on the London Stage. A shy, frail child with flat feet, knock knees and weak legs, Alicia started ballet lessons when her mother, an ardent ballet fan, was advised that learning to dance might help strengthen Alicia's legs and feet. Alicia took to ballet lessons with application and enthusiasm, and she was soon surprising her teachers and fellow students with her astonishing talent, earning herself the title of 'The Child Pavlova'. In fact, by the age of fourteen, her dancing skills were so impressive that when Sergei Diaghilev saw her dance, she was accepted into the Ballets Russes as his 'baby ballerina' - the youngest ever dancer to be offered a place in the renowned ballet company.

At the Ballets Russes, Alicia received music tutelage from Igor Stravinsky; she took dance lessons with ballet master, Enrico Cecchetti; she worked with choreographer, George Ballanchine, and had her costumes designed by Henri Matisse; and through a combination of natural talent and very hard work, she began to develop a technical brilliance that soon had her winning solo roles and the respect and envy of those in the dancing world. Tiny in stature (as an adult dancer she sometimes struggled to maintain seven stones in weight) and with size 2.5 feet (all of her ballet shoes had to be made specially for her), Alicia Markova seemed to defy gravity, as she appeared to fly through the air and land 'like a snowflake'. Her career was long and varied; she worked with Olga Spessivtseva, Serge Lifar, Ninette de Valois, Bronislava Nijinska, Leonide Massine, Michel Fokine, Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, amongst others, and although Alicia Markova achieved fame and, eventually, some measure of fortune, her life was not without its difficulties and heartaches, as Tina Sutton's colourful biography reveals.

This is a well-researched and detailed biography of a very talented and hard-working artist, who believed that ballet should be for everyone, not just for the elite. As the author informs us towards the close of her biography, Alicia Markova was Britain's first 'prima ballerina assoluta'; she was credited with pioneering British ballet in the 1930s; she was instrumental in the creation and early success of every ballet company formed in England: Ballet Rambert, The Sadler's Wells (now The Royal Ballet) and The Festival Ballet (currently The English National Ballet); and she brought ballet to the provinces for the first time. When she retired in her fifties, Alicia Markova was committed to sharing and passing on her knowledge, and she continued to do this well into her old age.

Tina Sutton, a fashion and arts writer for 'The Boston Globe', has packed her 600+ page biography with facts, diary and letter excerpts, newspaper reviews, interviews, anecdotes and quotes, and most of this makes for fascinating reading. The writing style is very accessible and informal - however, I was surprised by some of the almost 'slangy' language used on occasion, and if I am entirely honest, I feel the author relied a little too much on the use of block quotations and extracts from other sources to support her own narrative - often including several excerpts from different publications, all reporting the same event, which I thought was a little unnecessary at times. That said, being an enthusiast of the ballet and having spent a substantial part of my life either watching or taking part in ballet, I found this biography an informative, entertaining and enjoyable read. If reading this has aroused your interest in Dame Alicia, do take a look at YouTube which has a selection of film clips of the dancer both performing and coaching younger dancers, which makes for very interesting viewing.

4 Stars.


Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and Millais (Unabridged)
Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and Millais (Unabridged)
Offered by Audible Ltd

4.0 out of 5 stars Effie Gray - Audio Download Version, 16 Nov 2014
Suzanne Fagence Cooper's enjoyable biography of Euphemia Gray has been published in several different editions, including this audio download version - however, whichever version you buy, you can be assured that you will be reading (or listening to) a well-researched and sympathetic account of a very interesting woman. Born in 1828, in Perth, Scotland, Euphemia - or Effie, as she was known to her family and close friends, was the eldest of the fifteen children (of whom only eight survived) of George Gray, a solicitor, and his wife, Sophia. In 1848, at the age of nineteen, Effie, a very attractive and vivacious auburn-haired young woman, married John Ruskin, ten years her senior and already a literary celebrity having produced two volumes of art theory and criticism, and at the time of the marriage, was at work on a study of architecture. Six years after this seemingly very suitable marriage, a desperately unhappy Effie, sick of living a lie, left her husband and sought an annulment, due to the marriage never having been consummated. Apparently on the wedding night, Ruskin was in some way 'disgusted' with Effie's person - the reason for this was never made entirely clear, but Suzanne Fagence Cooper discusses likely explanations for Ruskin's extreme reluctance to have sex with his wife, and also discusses the possibility that Ruskin was inclined towards prepubescent girls, as his later infatuation with the underage Rose La Touche suggests. Naturally, the proceedings which followed Effie's revelations about their marriage proved very embarrassing to both herself and to Ruskin - Effie had to undergo an examination to prove she was still a virgin and Ruskin, although he stated he was able to prove otherwise, was declared 'incurably impotent'.

A year after the annulment, Effie married Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais, who had been an ardent admirer of Effie's and had been on friendly terms with both Effie and John Ruskin during their marriage. In fact, it has been suggested that Ruskin tried to encourage Millais and Effie towards an intimacy that would solve Ruskin's problem of being unwilling or unable to consummate his marriage - but speculation aside, Ruskin soon disappears from Suzanne Fagence Cooper's story, as her focus is now on Effie and on her life after Ruskin. And there is a lot more of Effie's life to learn about as we follow the four decades of her marriage to Millais, and although there were some difficult and some sad times ahead, their life together was a full and productive one, with Effie (when she was not pregnant or recovering from the births of their eight children) organizing the social and business side of their life, running the house, keeping accounts and hosting parties where she helped to promote commissions for Millais' art. However, I shall leave the remainder of Effie's story for prospective purchasers to read about for themselves, and there is a lot more to her story than I have revealed in this review.

As commented in my opening paragraph, this is a well-researched biography - the author had access to a large amount of previously unseen correspondence and was able to use this information, along with additional research, to assist her in writing an involving and interesting account of a woman who was not prepared to accept a passionless and childless marriage, and who risked censure and ostracism in order to live a full and productive life. In fact, although many friends and acquaintances in the Millais' circle, sympathised and supported them in their endeavours, the taint of Effie's annulment never entirely went away, and it was decades before Effie was finally received into Queen Victoria's presence, despite Millais becoming a baronet. Interestingly, Suzanne Fagence takes care to show Effie's story as part of wider shift in women's roles and expectations and her vivid biography which, in places, reads almost like a novel, is full of information which allows the reader to "walk with Effie and observe sixty years of Victorian life through her eyes." Recommended.

4 Stars.

Please note: I read the paperback version, but as the print was too small for my mother to read comfortably, I downloaded the audio version for her to listen to on my iPad. She commented that she very much enjoyed the biography, but she did mention that she found Sophie Ward's narration a little too carefully executed and did not appreciate the faux Scottish accent she used every time she quoted from one of the letters. That said, my mother still thoroughly enjoyed the biography and would listen to it again at some point in the future.


The Model Wife: Effie, Ruskin and Millais
The Model Wife: Effie, Ruskin and Millais
by Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.37

4.0 out of 5 stars Effie Gray, 16 Nov 2014
Suzanne Fagence Cooper's enjoyable biography of Euphemia Gray has been published in at least three different editions: there is the film tie-in version: Effie Gray; the very attractively presented paperback edition: Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais and the equally presentable hardback edition: The Model Wife: Effie, Ruskin and Millais - however, whichever version you buy, you can be assured that you will be reading a well-researched and sympathetic account of a very interesting woman. Born in 1828, in Perth, Scotland, Euphemia - or Effie, as she was known to her family and close friends, was the eldest of the fifteen children (of whom only eight survived) of George Gray, a solicitor, and his wife, Sophia. In 1848, at the age of nineteen, Effie, a very attractive and vivacious auburn-haired young woman, married John Ruskin, ten years her senior and already a literary celebrity having produced two volumes of art theory and criticism, and at the time of the marriage, was at work on a study of architecture. Six years after this seemingly very suitable marriage, a desperately unhappy Effie, sick of living a lie, left her husband and sought an annulment, due to the marriage never having been consummated. Apparently on the wedding night, Ruskin was in some way 'disgusted' with Effie's person - the reason for this was never made entirely clear, but Suzanne Fagence Cooper discusses likely explanations for Ruskin's extreme reluctance to have sex with his wife, and also discusses the possibility that Ruskin was inclined towards prepubescent girls, as his later infatuation with the underage Rose La Touche suggests. Naturally, the proceedings which followed Effie's revelations about their marriage proved very embarrassing to both herself and to Ruskin - Effie had to undergo an examination to prove she was still a virgin and Ruskin, although he stated he was able to prove otherwise, was declared 'incurably impotent'.

A year after the annulment, Effie married Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais, who had been an ardent admirer of Effie's and had been on friendly terms with both Effie and John Ruskin during their marriage. In fact, it has been suggested that Ruskin tried to encourage Millais and Effie towards an intimacy that would solve Ruskin's problem of being unwilling or unable to consummate his marriage - but speculation aside, Ruskin soon disappears from Suzanne Fagence Cooper's story, as her focus is now on Effie and on her life after Ruskin. And there is a lot more of Effie's life to learn about as we follow the four decades of her marriage to Millais, and although there were some difficult and some sad times ahead, their life together was a full and productive one, with Effie (when she was not pregnant or recovering from the births of their eight children) organizing the social and business side of their life, running the house, keeping accounts and hosting parties where she helped to promote commissions for Millais' art. However, I shall leave the remainder of Effie's story for prospective purchasers to read about for themselves, and there is a lot more to her story than I have revealed in this review.

As commented in my opening paragraph, this is a well-researched biography - the author had access to a large amount of previously unseen correspondence and was able to use this information, along with additional research, to assist her in writing an involving and interesting account of a woman who was not prepared to accept a passionless and childless marriage, and who risked censure and ostracism in order to live a full and productive life. In fact, although many friends and acquaintances in the Millais' circle, sympathised and supported them in their endeavours, the taint of Effie's annulment never entirely went away, and it was decades before Effie was finally received into Queen Victoria's presence, despite Millais becoming a baronet. Interestingly, Suzanne Fagence takes care to show Effie's story as part of wider shift in women's roles and expectations and her vivid biography which, in places, reads almost like a novel, is full of information which allows the reader to "walk with Effie and observe sixty years of Victorian life through her eyes." Recommended.

4 Stars.


Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais
Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais
by Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Effie Gray, 16 Nov 2014
Suzanne Fagence Cooper's enjoyable biography of Euphemia Gray has been published in at least three different editions: there is the film tie-in version: Effie Gray; the very attractively presented paperback edition: Effie: Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais and the equally presentable hardback edition: The Model Wife: Effie, Ruskin and Millais - however, whichever version you buy, you can be assured that you will be reading a well-researched and sympathetic account of a very interesting woman. Born in 1828, in Perth, Scotland, Euphemia - or Effie, as she was known to her family and close friends, was the eldest of the fifteen children (of whom only eight survived) of George Gray, a solicitor, and his wife, Sophia. In 1848, at the age of nineteen, Effie, a very attractive and vivacious auburn-haired young woman, married John Ruskin, ten years her senior and already a literary celebrity having produced two volumes of art theory and criticism, and at the time of the marriage, was at work on a study of architecture. Six years after this seemingly very suitable marriage, a desperately unhappy Effie, sick of living a lie, left her husband and sought an annulment, due to the marriage never having been consummated. Apparently on the wedding night, Ruskin was in some way 'disgusted' with Effie's person - the reason for this was never made entirely clear, but Suzanne Fagence Cooper discusses likely explanations for Ruskin's extreme reluctance to have sex with his wife, and also discusses the possibility that Ruskin was inclined towards prepubescent girls, as his later infatuation with the underage Rose La Touche suggests. Naturally, the proceedings which followed Effie's revelations about their marriage proved very embarrassing to both herself and to Ruskin - Effie had to undergo an examination to prove she was still a virgin and Ruskin, although he stated he was able to prove otherwise, was declared 'incurably impotent'.

A year after the annulment, Effie married Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais, who had been an ardent admirer of Effie's and had been on friendly terms with both Effie and John Ruskin during their marriage. In fact, it has been suggested that Ruskin tried to encourage Millais and Effie towards an intimacy that would solve Ruskin's problem of being unwilling or unable to consummate his marriage - but speculation aside, Ruskin soon disappears from Suzanne Fagence Cooper's story, as her focus is now on Effie and on her life after Ruskin. And there is a lot more of Effie's life to learn about as we follow the four decades of her marriage to Millais, and although there were some difficult and some sad times ahead, their life together was a full and productive one, with Effie (when she was not pregnant or recovering from the births of their eight children) organizing the social and business side of their life, running the house, keeping accounts and hosting parties where she helped to promote commissions for Millais' art. However, I shall leave the remainder of Effie's story for prospective purchasers to read about for themselves, and there is a lot more to her story than I have revealed in this review.

As commented in my opening paragraph, this is a well-researched biography - the author had access to a large amount of previously unseen correspondence and was able to use this information, along with additional research, to assist her in writing an involving and interesting account of a woman who was not prepared to accept a passionless and childless marriage, and who risked censure and ostracism in order to live a full and productive life. In fact, although many friends and acquaintances in the Millais' circle, sympathised and supported them in their endeavours, the taint of Effie's annulment never entirely went away, and it was decades before Effie was finally received into Queen Victoria's presence, despite Millais becoming a baronet. Interestingly, Suzanne Fagence takes care to show Effie's story as part of wider shift in women's roles and expectations and her vivid biography which, in places, reads almost like a novel, is full of information which allows the reader to "walk with Effie and observe sixty years of Victorian life through her eyes." Recommended.

4 Stars.


Effie Gray: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais
Effie Gray: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais
by Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Effie Gray, 16 Nov 2014
Suzanne Fagence Cooper's enjoyable biography of Euphemia Gray has been published in at least three different editions: there is the film tie-in version:Effie Gray; the very attractively presented paperback edition: Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais and the equally presentable hardback edition: The Model Wife: Effie, Ruskin and Millais - however, whichever version you buy, you can be assured that you will be reading a well-researched and sympathetic account of a very interesting woman. Born in 1828, in Perth, Scotland, Euphemia - or Effie, as she was known to her family and close friends, was the eldest of the fifteen children (of whom only eight survived) of George Gray, a solicitor, and his wife, Sophia. In 1848, at the age of nineteen, Effie, a very attractive and vivacious auburn-haired young woman, married John Ruskin, ten years her senior and already a literary celebrity having produced two volumes of art theory and criticism, and at the time of the marriage, was at work on a study of architecture. Six years after this seemingly very suitable marriage, a desperately unhappy Effie, sick of living a lie, left her husband and sought an annulment, due to the marriage never having been consummated. Apparently on the wedding night, Ruskin was in some way 'disgusted' with Effie's person - the reason for this was never made entirely clear, but Suzanne Fagence Cooper discusses likely explanations for Ruskin's extreme reluctance to have sex with his wife, and also discusses the possibility that Ruskin was inclined towards prepubescent girls, as his later infatuation with the underage Rose La Touche suggests. Naturally, the proceedings which followed Effie's revelations about their marriage proved very embarrassing to both herself and to Ruskin - Effie had to undergo an examination to prove she was still a virgin and Ruskin, although he stated he was able to prove otherwise, was declared 'incurably impotent'.

A year after the annulment, Effie married Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais, who had been an ardent admirer of Effie's and had been on friendly terms with both Effie and John Ruskin during their marriage. In fact, it has been suggested that Ruskin tried to encourage Millais and Effie towards an intimacy that would solve Ruskin's problem of being unwilling or unable to consummate his marriage - but speculation aside, Ruskin soon disappears from Suzanne Fagence Cooper's story, as her focus is now on Effie and on her life after Ruskin. And there is a lot more of Effie's life to learn about as we follow the four decades of her marriage to Millais, and although there were some difficult and some sad times ahead, their life together was a full and productive one, with Effie (when she was not pregnant or recovering from the births of their eight children) organizing the social and business side of their life, running the house, keeping accounts and hosting parties where she helped to promote commissions for Millais' art. However, I shall leave the remainder of Effie's story for prospective purchasers to read about for themselves, and there is a lot more to her story than I have revealed in this review.

As commented in my opening paragraph, this is a well-researched biography - the author had access to a large amount of previously unseen correspondence and was able to use this information, along with additional research, to assist her in writing an involving and interesting account of a woman who was not prepared to accept a passionless and childless marriage, and who risked censure and ostracism in order to live a full and productive life. In fact, although many friends and acquaintances in the Millais' circle, sympathised and supported them in their endeavours, the taint of Effie's annulment never entirely went away, and it was decades before Effie was finally received into Queen Victoria's presence, despite Millais becoming a baronet. Interestingly, Suzanne Fagence takes care to show Effie's story as part of wider shift in women's roles and expectations and her vivid biography which, in places, reads almost like a novel, is full of information which allows the reader to "walk with Effie and observe sixty years of Victorian life through her eyes." Recommended.

4 Stars.


The Fires of Autumn
The Fires of Autumn
by Irène Némirovsky
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Fires of Autumn, 10 Nov 2014
This review is from: The Fires of Autumn (Hardcover)
Best known for her highly acclaimed novel: Suite Francaise, Irène Némirovsky's latest novel to be translated into English is 'The Fires of Autumn' which was written at around the same time as 'Suite Francaise' and serves as a prequel to that acclaimed novel. 'The Fires of Autumn' follows the fortunes of several families, whose lives interweave from 1912, through the years of the First World War, the decadence of the 1920s, the deprivations of the 1930s, and onwards until the fall of France in the early part of the Second World War. Opening in Paris, a couple of years before the outbreak of WWI, we meet the Brun family: the widowed Aldolphe; his mother-in-law, Madame Pain; his pretty daughter, Therese; and Martial Brun, who is cousin to Therese. We also meet the Jacquelaine family: Monsieur and Madame Jacquelaine and their son, Bernard; and in addition to the main cast, we become acquainted with Martial's friend, Raymond Detang, and the widowed Madame Humbert and her daughter, the lovely Renee. At the outset of the story, our cast of characters seem to lead a peaceful, comfortable and very domestic existence, enjoying their family meals and their Sunday walks together in the park, whilst Martial, who is training to become a doctor, makes plans to win the affections of his cousin, Therese, and make her his wife. However, when Europe enters the First World War, Bernard, at barely eighteen, signs up immediately and goes off to fight in what he thinks will be a glorious war and one that will be won by the allies within a few months, but he soon has his eyes opened in the mud and mire of the trenches. And Martial, who could have escaped the worst of the conflict, volunteers to care for the wounded at the front line and has to face the traumas of those who are horrifically injured by bullets, bayonets and bombs. When the war finally comes to an end, no one will escape unscarred by their experiences, especially Bernard whose ideas of patriotism and glory are replaced with cynicism and a desire to get what he can out of life. To say more about how the characters' lives evolve through the rest of the story would involve including spoilers, so I shall leave the remainder of the novel for prospective purchasers to read for themselves.

As with many of Irène Némirovsky's novels, 'The Fires of Autumn' is an involving and affecting story which is permeated by war and its after-effects. This novel also looks at the corruption and greed that swept across some sections of society in the inter-war years and the author demonstrates this aspect particularly well through the experiences of Bernard and his associate, Raymond Detang. However, good as this novel is in parts, I did not find it quite as impressive or as readable as some of the author's other novels. As many readers will be aware, Irène Némirovsky sadly perished in Auschwitz in 1942, and this novel, of which there were two typescripts - the second containing substantial modifications - was published posthumously. This new edition, which is based on the modified typescript, nevertheless contains some of the sections which the author wanted to be removed, which may have been those that affected the flow of the story for me. I have to say that much as I enjoy reading novels where the author allows the reader to be party to the inner thoughts and imaginings of the characters, I felt there was just a bit too much of this in this particular novel at times, where people's inner thoughts were explained and over-explained, yet some of the characters somehow seemed to lack depth. That said, this novel is still an involving and worthwhile read and some of the prose is absolutely beautiful, especially the first chapter of the book where, in painterly language, the author opens with an interior scene that is described like a post-impressionist painting, and her descriptions of the Sunday walk along the Champs-Élysées, which ends with evening drinks on the terrace of pavement cafe under a pale violet sky, were a delight to read.

3.5 Stars.


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