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VINE VOICEon 26 February 2001
Mariana is the story of a young girl's life in the 1930's. Told in flashback, it opens with Mary waiting anxiously for news of her young husband who has been reported missing during WWII. Then, we turn back to Mary's childhood and adolescence, a time of school, wonderful summer holidays, first love, a disastrous attempt at drama school, love affairs with the wrong men, and finally, the meeting with the right man which will lead us back to the present. Monica Dickens wrote this novel when she was only 24, and it's perspective is that of a lively young woman who has no idea what to do with her life. It's written with great humour (the episode when Mary recites Tennyson's "Mariana" at drama school is very funny) and the details of life in the 30's are an added attraction to modern readers. The tone of light romance deepens as we move closer to the end of the novel, and remember the opening scenes of Mary waiting for news of her husband. The final scenes are beautifully written and very moving.
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on 17 September 2006
I picked this up just after reading Monica Dickens' autobiography, An Open Book, in which Dickens explains how much she drew from her own life when writing Mariana (her second book). With this personal experience to guide her, she paints a lovely, unvarnished portrait of a girl's growing up in London between the wars. She touches on issues that nearly every female can relate to: the excitement and pain of a first love; the joys and struggles of making friends; the often difficult task of fitting in at school; and the search for excitement and purpose in life. In refreshingly unpretentious prose and in a deceptively simple style, Dickens, like her great-grandfather Charles, gets to the heart of basic human emotions and dramas. It's a book to take to bed on a cold night or to read while on holiday: fun, honest, and heartwarming - another Persephone delight.
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on 31 July 2007
I found 'Mariana' surprisingly gripping and was hooked from start to finish. Whilst awaiting news of her husband during the Second World War, Mary looks over her life's experiences and the resulting novel has moments of real humour and poignancy. Whilst the novel is bursting with likeable and realistic characters, Mary is undoubtedly the star and is both lovable and wonderfully fallible. She is a character I could easily identify with and I finished the novel feeling as if I really knew her! She recounts her teenage years and early adulthood with honesty and a lack of pretension, which is characteristic of the novel as a whole. Dealing with romance, friendship and growing up, Mariana has similarities to 'The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets' by Eva Rice but I felt it was an even more interesting and satisfying read!
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on 12 February 2016
I adored this book – it was such a comfort read. I feel a real sense of sadness that it is only a library book – giving it back is going to be a wrench. There are obvious parallels to I Capture The Castle but to me, it recalled far more The Pursuit of Love, only a far gentler version; there is none of the trademark Mitford spikiness, it is self-deprecating rather than skewering. This is a true coming-of-age tale with the blithe ingenue heroine Mary at its heart. The story begins with her as a young wife, listening to the wireless and hearing that her husband’s ship has gone down. Stuck out in the countryside in the middle of a storm, with no access to a phone line, Mary has no way of finding out what has become of him and, unable to sleep, she lies in the darkness thinking of all of the events of her life that have brought her to this point. From such a bleak beginning, the novel immediately lightens, going back to Mary’s idyllic childhood, the long summers spent amongst her cousins at Charbury, her bohemian dress-maker mother and her would-be movie star uncle – it becomes a comedy of manners, with the reader watching a young girl grow up in a world which knows that her ultimate fate is only ever going to be matrimony.

There is more than the whiff of the memoir about Mariana, with many of the details drawn from Monica Dickens’ own life. There is a comfort about many of the early events of the story, with various childish adventures and mishaps that would not be out of place in a Noel Streatfeild novel. Still, there is an added layer to many of the anecdotes, with the adult Mary reminding herself of details that her mother reported later, of tensions and arguments of which at the time she was ignorant – these days were not as halcyon as she believed. Yet all the same, Mariana never sets out to be a novel that is going to rock the boat; as a young woman growing to adulthood in the 1930s, Mary is extremely conventional in her outlook – inheriting the outlook of her father’s side of the family, she is horrified when her mother suggests that when she grows up she will have to out to work. “Oh no, I shan’t do that, I’m going to be married and have twenty-six children with names going all through the alphabet, like Arthur, Barbara, Chloe, Egbert, Felicity, George, Harriet, Ipheginia -‘ The twelve year-old Mary is no crazed husband-hunter, she just knows that the only career she is interested in is that of wife.

There is a real nostalgia to Mariana, particularly in its descriptions of Charbury, her grandparents’ country house. There are frequent descriptions of food – the nursery teas and the high dinners to which the children are invited on their best behaviour, then the wonderful evening when Mary’s Uncle Geoffrey takes her to the Cafe Royal. The food really hits its zenith when Mary spends her year in Paris, with the dashing Pierre available to guide her to all of the best spots – then when Mary realises on the boat home to England that she cannot possible remain in France, since England looks ‘so comfortably unexotic, like a cabbage.’ Food is a part of Mary’s identity – and with the advent of rationing, not only is the reader wistful for the luxurious pre-rationing cuisine, but Mary is having to find familiarity elsewhere.

More than anything, Mariana is a truly funny novel – my personal favourite was the scene from Mary’s childhood when she struggles through her algebra homework, with both her mother and uncle trying to help her. Her mother ‘with puckered brows trying to cast her mind back to the days of the Dulwich High School, and Uncle Geoffrey breathing down the back of Mary’s neck, out of his depth but willing to have a good guess’. As the conversation continues, Uncle Geoffrey doggedly repeats the question to himself since his ‘policy was, when in doubt, always go back to the beginning.’ This was so reminiscent of my own childhood struggles with maths that I had to laugh – Dickens has a real ear for dialogue and it is this which lifts what could otherwise be a very run-of-the-mill tale into being a novel to truly treasure.

Much of Dickens’ wit is highly observant, such as her words on Mary’s classmate Cecily Barnard who ‘couldn’t even write her own name and was not allowed to lock the door of the lavatory’ – then there is also the horror of Mary’s first friend Muriel, whose ‘oppressive attachment’ proves hard to shake off. There is the shudder of true recognition in Dickens’ description of Muriel as ‘like those undergraduates whose political and religious convictions are as obtrusive as their Adam’s apples.’ It is with relief that Mary discovers Angela Shaw as a friend instead. The comedy hits its most absurd height with Mary’s attempts to train as an actress which are harrowing in their awfulness – Dickens conjures up vividly Mary’s leaden lack of aptitude, something which must have been a cathartic experience since Monica Dickens too was kicked out of drama school for not being able to act.

I read the book with no pre-conceptions – I even somehow missed the blurb – and so observed Mary’s romantic adventures and misadventures with no expectations about where the cards would fall and ultimately I was glad that I had done so. This is not a story with wild twists and turns, it is the story of how a young girl came to be but perhaps the biggest surprise is that Mary’s conclusion is not a romantic one, but a realisation that she is complete in herself. That no matter what the morning may bring, she will have to go on. ‘When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person Nothing that ever happens in life can take away the fact that I am me. So I have to go on being me.’ Mary may appear rooted in the domestic, but for all that, she makes a surprisingly revolutionary revelation. I can think of few novels which left me feeling quite so much happiness, and the only reason I didn’t whoop at the final few lines was that I was on a bus. A reassuring read but one with an incredibly warm heart.
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on 18 December 2012
This is a simply written book about a simple girl living with her mother in London as the second WWII begins. It is amazing, though, how such a simple story can be so beautiful and compelling until by the end of the book you are totally wrapped up with it. Also if you are unfamiliar with the publishers, then please visit their website and enjoy all the wonderful books they offer, all female writers written in the 30s, 40s and 50s. This book is a gem, please buy it now.
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on 3 July 2008
Mariana is a story that takes the reader through a girl's life - from child to young woman. It's point of view is flawless, changing and developing with the character as she moves from a naieve and unsure girl to an individual who is happy with the role of being herself; who comes to realise that whatever happened 'all one could do was to get on with the job that nobody else could do, the job of being oneself'. But it isn't just a 'coming of age' novel. It is beautifully descriptive - taking us back to the 1930s and giving a glimpse of a world that seems so different, where girls did wait for a husband to turn up, and could be saved financially by making a good marriage, and when London, Paris, the world, somehow seems more exotic, more finely presented, and more innocent, but none of it is portrayed in a saccharine way. The novel starts with Mary, the main character, waiting for news of her husband who is away from her, as a naval officer in WW2, and then flashes back to her youth. As you approach the end of the book you can't help remembering the start of the novel and hoping, very much, that the news of the man - who she feels is as close to her as to almost be a part of her - will not be bad.
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I loved reading Monica Dickens' autobiographies in my teens. I've also read quite a lot of her fiction. This however, is her most famous book and one I thought I had already read. It turns out that I hadn't, and it was an absolute joy to read it for the first time. I loved it. It's sweet, romantic, mannered and absolutely perfect escapism.
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on 2 January 2014
This is one of my favourite books of all time. For some reason Mary Shannon and her life are endlessly fascinating. I loved the feeling and atmosphere of Charbury, the cousins, her thoughts as she grows up. Highly recommended.
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on 20 May 2015
I love Monica Dickens and there are some good things in this book, but this heroine is a bit "straight" for me and I am irritated by her narrow background among nannies and ponies. Oh, perhaps that's the point.
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on 31 January 2014
This is a perfect coming of age novel. It is beautifully written, evocative and poetic with a freshness that is surprising given its timing. This edition is also a joy to behold as its stark contemporary cover design contrasts with very attractive end papers. I received it as a gift and now treasure it.
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