Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 begins with the disappearance of a teenage girl named Becky who was with her family spending the winter holidays in a small English town. From that premise, you might think you know what to expect. You’re probably wrong.

McGregor doesn’t focus on the investigation, the suspects, or Becky’s history, although all of those elements appear. Instead, he dwells on everyday life in the town and how it continues to go on, season after season, year after year. People think and worry about what happened to Becky, but that tragedy is just one of many events. Over the years, people are born, people die, relationships begin and end, Becky’s peers go off to university and return. Life continues.

I’ve admired Jon McGregor’s writing ever since I read Even the Dogs. His short story collection is one of my favorites. He always writes well, and he tends to look at familiar narratives from a new angle. He takes that to an extreme in Reservoir 13, and I found it absolutely hypnotic.

Each of the book’s 13 chapters begins with the dawn of a new year. Here’s the opening of chapter 8:

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks in the rain, and thunder in the next valley. The rain broke over the hill like a wave and blew straight into people’s faces. The river was high an thick and there were grayling in number feeding on the caddis larvae and shrimps. In the morning Ian Dowsett was out with a new box of flies and having a job to keep his footing in the current as he dropped the weighted nymphs into the water. Susanna’s ex-husband appeared again, and this time the altercation was seen.

The structure of the book creates a sense of time’s cyclical nature, which McGregor emphasizes by making note of the changing seasons and the village rituals. And those cycles are echoed in many of the book’s characters, with certain routines happening again and again, but with variation from year to year. The feeling is that everything both stays the same always and keeps changing always. And as I think about it, that’s kind of how life is. We continue with the same routines until something happens to shake us out of it. It’s not always possible to know what that routine-shaking event will be, and that event won’t be the same for everyone.

The book’s massive number of characters does pose a challenge. I found myself wishing I’d kept notes on who was who because I kept forgetting. And by the time I realized how helpful a list would be, it felt like it was too late to start. So I settled into the idea that the book is not so much about each individual character’s journey but about the village as a whole. Looking at the village as a whole, we see how little really does change. All of the instability exists at the individual level. I’m not sure what to make of that, but the tension is interesting to ponder.

With four Booker contenders left to read, I’m putting this at the top of my personal shortlist. It’s not a book I’d expect everyone to love, but it totally worked for me.

I received an e-galley of this novel for review consideration via Edelweiss.


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The Wild Places

wild placesThe Wild Places, like the other two books I’ve read by Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind and The Old Ways), is a delicious combination of personal essay, nature writing, and cultural history. I feel I could read his writing on any topic at all and he’d turn it into something compulsively, personally fascinating, but this book happens to be about his search for wilderness. In a place as small, as geographically bounded, and as densely populated as the British Isles, can there be any true wilderness left? Or is it, as Gerard Manley Hopkins fears, that

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Each chapter of the book takes Macfarlane to a different kind of wild space. The book begins with the kind of wildness you and I might immediately think of as wild: “Island,” a remote Welsh island called Ynys Enlli where monks and pilgrims scraped out a bare sort of living; “Moor,” the trackless, rocky Rannoch Moor near Glen Coe; “Summit,” the high and inaccessible peak of Ben Hope in Scotland.

But then his travels take him to other kinds of wildness as well. There is the Burren, in Ireland, made of limestone, whose deep crevasses harbor teeming life like a jungle. There are the holloways of southern England, where ancient, abandoned footpaths and cart-paths have been eroded into deep ravines that now harbor flora and fauna that live nowhere else.

Tucked into the descriptions of these wild places — wood, ocean, forest, mountain — are descriptions of  eccentric men to whom wildness has sometimes meant everything. Macfarlane describes W.H. Murray, for instance, a nature essayist, who went off to fight in World War II. Nothing would have sustained him in his prisoner-of-war camp but his vivid memory of his home mountains, islands, and moors, and his writing about them — usually on toilet paper — whenever he could. Other men have been obsessed with tracking peregrines, or with sea life, or, like George Orwell, simply with living alone in these wild places. All of it is familiar to Macfarlane; these men love what he loves, so they are as good as friends.

Macfarlane’s writing is enchanting. There’s nothing I’d personally like less than to spend the night out on Ben Hope in a sleet-storm, but reading about the joy it brings him is utterly convincing. He finds that despite pollution, climate change, and population, “for all this, nature is never spent;/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;” and wildness is still to be found. If you’ve been looking for beautiful, connected nature writing, look no further.

Posted in Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration | 1 Comment

4 3 2 1

The first observation most people seem to make about this novel by Paul Auster is that it’s long. And it is. At 866 pages, it is by far the longest novel on the Booker longlist. It needed to be long, although perhaps not this long.

In 4 3 2 1, Auster tells four different versions of the boyhood and early adulthood of Archie Ferguson. In all four versions, Ferguson is born in Newark in 1947. His father, Stanley, owns a furniture and appliance store, and his mother, Rose, is a photographer. The family is Jewish, but not devout. And, from there, each story spins in a different direction.

The primary source of difference has to do with the fate of Stanley Ferguson’s business. Its success or failure and the reasons behind it affects where young Archie lives, what his mother does, and his connections to extended family and friends.

Auster methodically works through each stage of the four Fergusons’ lives, showing him as a boy who loves sports and reading, a teenager obsessed with sex, and a young man setting out into the future—or not.

I loved the concept of this novel, largely because I love to think about how a single event can change everything. It was fascinating to see what elements of Ferguson’s personality stayed the same and which altered from one life to another. In my view, he still remained essentially himself, but circumstances in some lives brought out a more adventurous streak or a more cautious one. He always falls for a girl named Amy, but circumstances push the relationship in different directions. He always writes, but the nature of his writing (and his chosen pen name) varies from life to life.

There were a few variables that I wished Auster had not bothered to change, such as those around his aunt Mildred. She’s a key figure in his life, but the way her life varies in each story seemed to introduce unnecessary complications. Most other elements, however, remain stable, with the differences being easily traced back to his father’s business.

To fully capture all these lives, Auster needed to write a long book. Each story could just about stand alone (with one significant exception), although they’re more interesting when viewed side by side. In isolation, most of these stories don’t offer much that’s new. Ferguson is almost excessively ordinary, or at least an ordinary example of a specific type of New York intellectual man. And his lives, for the most part, don’t go in any extraordinary directions. One version, the third, is a little more original than the others, as Ferguson questions his sexuality, but even there, I’m not sure there’s much that’s different from other stories about the same journey, aside from the open acknowledgment that bisexuality is a thing.

Still, I enjoyed each thread well enough, and considering the stories side by side gives them a freshness that I appreciated. However, given how typical Ferguson and his lives are, it wouldn’t have been hard to cut this down by a hundred pages or more. It read reasonably quickly for me, but there’s a level of detail that isn’t always necessary. I found myself skimming long sections about sports, the books Ferguson was reading, and a student protest that Ferguson witnessed. And I relied a lot on momentum to keep going. It’s the kind of book that I wouldn’t necessarily be excited to pick back up once I put it down. Reading most of it over one weekend enabled me to hold the four lives in my head more easily and continue to care about them all.

With eight books on the Booker longlist read or attempted, this one ranks as number 6, but it probably won’t make my personal Booker shortlist unless the five books I have left to read are terrible. (And I’m far enough into Reservoir 13 to know that won’t be the case.) I wouldn’t be mad to see it shortlisted, but there are far more worthy candidates to win.

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The New Jim Crow

new jim crowMichelle Alexander’s hugely influential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was published in 2010, just two years after Barack Obama was elected president for the first time. That’s seven years ago now, and as I read it, I wondered what she would write in an updated edition, should she create one in, say, 2020. A lot has happened since her book was written to open the eyes of the nation to the truth of what she said: Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, dozens of widely-publicized police-involved shootings, evidence of police bias, Charlottesville. But not much has changed in our nation’s criminal justice system as a result. Or not yet.

Alexander’s premise is that once Jim Crow crumbled as a result of the Civil Rights movement and the federal laws that abolished segregation and other civil rights abuses, white leaders used the rhetoric of “law and order” and being “tough on crime” to exert control over the black population. This changed over a couple of decades into the War on Drugs, a “war” that, for many reasons, hugely disproportionately affected black and brown people and put them under the control of the penal system. Jim Crow disappeared, but a new way of controlling minorities was put in place — and this time it was supposedly “colorblind,” even though every piece of evidence suggests that it affects minorities far, far more than white people.

Alexander discusses the way the federal government gives police departments incentives to wage the War on Drugs: they get to keep the money and property they seize; they get grant money for the people they arrest; they get military-grade weapons in return for participating. Who would, or could, turn that down? What politician wants to be soft on crime? Not Hillary Clinton. Not Barack Obama.

She also discusses the long-term after-effects of being swept up in the prison system. Let’s say you get arrested for felony possession of a small amount of marijuana when you’re 19. Maybe you don’t even go to jail; lots of people don’t for that kind of crime. Or maybe harsh mandatory sentencing sends to you prison for several years. After that, though, you can’t get help with housing, you can’t get food stamps, you can’t get government loans for education, your right as a citizen to vote is taken away, you have trouble finding a job because no one will hire a felon. Thirty years later, you’re still only 50 years old, but that’s still following you. You still have to keep checking that box. You’re still in control of the penal system. You’re part of what she calls the “undercaste.” And she is very, very clear that in the United States, this undercaste is deliberately racialized.

I learned so much from this book. Did you know, for instance, that jails in the United States are mostly in rural areas? This means that when a census is taken, these rural areas get a boost in population (and therefore representation) because they have a jail, even though those people can’t vote, and the inner-city areas those people often come from have a corresponding decline in population (and therefore representation.) Did you know that there are nearly a million jobs related to prisons in the US? Did you know that the US Supreme Court says racial profiling is okay? Did you know that white people use, and deal, drugs, at the same rates minorities do? Though this book was not a list of trivia. It was a compelling argument that the War on Drugs has been used as a tool to incarcerate millions of African Americans and decimate communities.

This book was hard to read. Don’t misunderstand — it is very clearly written, extensively resourced, and utterly convincing. But it is devastating. It took me a long time to read, even though it’s only about 250 pages long, partly because I wanted to absorb all of the information, and partly because it hurt to read it. Towards the end of the book, Alexander says that this system of mass incarceration that holds millions of people in its grip isn’t the result of race hatred. It’s the result of race indifference. In the words of Martin Luther King, “One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class, or nation.” We just don’t care very much about what happens to poor black and brown people, especially if they “did something wrong” or “made poor choices.” We have to care, says Alexander. If we fail to care, really care, across racial divides, another system of racial control will be reborn.

I couldn’t recommend this book more highly. It’s extremely relevant to current events, and eye-opening even if you already know a lot about this topic. Let it sit with you a while.

Posted in Nonfiction | 7 Comments

The Crossover

crossoverI’ve mentioned my book club with Matthew several times already this summer. The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, was one of the books I put on my list for him to pick from, and I was really glad we got to it before summer was over.

This book, told entirely in verse, is about 14-year-old twins Josh and JB Bell, both of whom are heart-and-soul devoted to basketball. Josh (aka “Filthy McNasty”) is the narrator, and he’s writing in verse because that’s the way he thinks: rapping, rhymes, this-and-that, that-and-this. Their adored dad, Chuck “The Man,” was a basketball star in his time, one of those guys who goes to Europe to play, but a knee injury kept him from going pro, so now he coaches his sons and watches out for the family. Their mom is the assistant principal at their junior high school (yikes!) so they have the kind of standards you might expect: their academics have to be at the top of their game if they expect to stay on the team, and they have to be family rock stars, too.

This book builds by pieces, poem by poem. We get to see what happens as JB finds a girlfriend (what happens when one twin gets a girlfriend and the other one doesn’t? Friction, that’s what.) We see the explosive love of the game in both twins, and their dad too. We see Josh’s worry about his dad, who has insanely high cholesterol but a dread of going to the doctor. We see the tenderness in the family, and the prickly independence and interdependence of twins who are alike-but-not-alike. We see the intimacy of family. And the poetry isn’t just a device in this book, it’s the point.

Alexander plays with the metaphor of the crossover in this book. I’m not a sports fan (like, at all) but Matthew is, so he was able to show me what one looks like in basketball! But the idea of crossing over — from childhood to young adulthood, from one phase of life to another, and even from life to death — is everywhere here.

This book won a Newbery medal and a Coretta Scott King Award, so I’m not the only person who appreciated it. But I thought it was wonderful, and not just for the athletes in your life. It was funny and interesting and out-there and bold, and also gentle and vulnerable and poetic. Highly recommended.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Poetry | 2 Comments

White Tears

white tearsI read about Hari Kunzru’s White Tears on Other Jenny’s blog a few months ago. I doubt I would have read it if it hadn’t been for her review, but she hooked me with her description of the book as a scary Southern Gothic ghost story (written by a Kashmiri British guy.) It’s the story of two college kids: Seth, who comes from not much, and Carter, who comes from huge money and privilege. They are both obsessed with audio, and particularly the history of it, ancient blues records from the twenties and thirties. They set up a business together after college, making analog recordings. One day, when Seth is out in New York, making ambient-sound recordings that he can use as background for his work, he accidentally records part of a blues song, something that catches at him in a way he didn’t expect and can’t explain. Carter becomes obsessed with the song, and, without Seth’s knowledge, puts the song out on the Internet, claiming it’s by an invented blues singer from the 1930s named Charlie Shaw. But then it turns out that Charlie Shaw was real. (Maybe.) And then things start to go really wrong.

Jenny and Teresa had different reactions to this book. Jenny was really frightened by it, whereas Teresa thought the literary-fiction wasn’t strong enough to hold up the scarier, more horrory second part of the book. Personally, I didn’t think the book was very scary (I’ve read scarier!), but as a thought experiment I found it fascinating.

Kunzru asks the question: what if, when white people appropriated or exploited another culture, they had to pay reparations? Not just financial reparations, but some kind of personal, emotional, or physical reparations? What if it were even a life for a life? Is that a horror story? And is that a horror story for the white people, or is it a horror story for the people who were exploited, enslaved, impoverished, and killed in the first place?

Seth and Carter (especially Carter) are set up as casual appropriators. From Carter’s tattoo of Mexican calaveras, to his daps and fist bumps, to his insistence that “black music” is “more intense and authentic than anything made by white people,” we get the pervasive sense that Carter feels he owns this culture, the way he owns his music equipment. In fact, he says so, at the cathartic moment when he’s put Charlie Shaw’s music on the Internet and everyone believes it’s real:

These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!

It turns out that Carter’s family is also deeply involved, not just in appropriation — in “owning” black culture — but in exploiting and oppressing it, and that this is the source of their wealth. There was a scene about a third of the way through the book at the family’s home in Virginia that reminded me of the film Get Out, with all the African-American servants and the white people sipping mint juleps. (That was a great movie, by the way, if you, like me, didn’t see it for a while.)

Kunzru rolls this around for a while, as things get worse and worse, first for Carter and then for Seth. What would happen, he asks, if someone had to pay for this? If it didn’t mean just throwing money at the solution? And whose horror story is that, really? He doesn’t offer a facile answer to that question. The terror of Charlie Shaw’s revenge tears Seth and Carter’s lives apart, as we slowly learn what happened to Charlie. The bitterness of racial history in this country is the root of the horror here.

For me, this book worked because I liked its bones. I admit to being seriously bored by the audiophile stuff (way too much detail!), and not very entranced by the narrator. But the idea of the book was just fascinating, and as Kunzru worked it out, it got more and more interesting. In the end, it stuck with me as a problem to be chewed at rather than a novel I loved, but I was really glad I read it.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 9 Comments

Swing Time

The unnamed narrator in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time met her best childhood friend Tracey at a Saturday dance class at a church near the London housing estates where the two girls lived. Both girls were poor and bi-racial, but their families were otherwise very different. The narrator’s mother was an ambitious black woman who spent her time studying, leaving much of the child care to the narrator’s white father. Tracey’s father was mostly absent, and her white mother doted on her, but didn’t maintain anything close to the high standards of the narrator’s mother.

As the girls grew up, they drifted apart, as often happens. It’s evident early on, however, that there some sort of complication would make the rift severe and permanent. Smith takes her time getting there, however, instead turning the story toward the narrator’s career as the personal assistant to a pop star named Aimee. The work is all-consuming, and when Aimee decides to make the education of African girls her cause, the narrator finds herself traveling to an unamed African country (probably Gambia).

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and Smith arranges the story in multiple timelines, swinging between the narrator’s memories of Tracey and her present life with Aimee and her work in Africa. For me, the childhood story, especially the girls’ fascination with dance was, by far, the most exciting. The girls spend hours watching dance routines from old movies, especially Fred and Ginger. When they discover Jeni LeGon, they’re entranced. Here was a tremendous dancer who looked like them, especially Tracey. Yet she’s surrounded by troubling African imagery. And then there’s that Fred Astaire routine that the narrator adored as a child and was shocked to realize as an adult was performed in blackface.

The story of dance provides lots of great material for exploring issues of race and appropriation, and it looks for a while like that’s going to be a major theme of the book. But them Smith broadens out to consider the ways those with wealth can simultaneously help and exploit those without it. These, too, are worthwhile themes, but I didn’t find Smith’s handling of them particularly compelling.

Part of the problem is that the narrator and Aimee are the only characters that really come to life in the African sections. And the sections themselves were sort of tedious. It was hard to get a read on what they were doing in Africa—or what they thought they were doing. There’s a lack of the kind of detail that made the childhood-focused chapters so wonderful. I ended up with a general sense that the work just wasn’t as helpful as it was meant to be but I can’t really explain why.

Even though I think this book has some significant flaws, on the whole, I did enjoy it. The parts that were good were so very excellent that they made plowing through the dull sections worth it. With six books from the Booker longlist read, I’d put it at the bottom, but it’s still ahead of anything on last year’s list.

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I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did this out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.

I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.

I picked up this book after hours of watching news of violence coming out of Charlottesville. I was feeling numb to it all, and this passage above caused me to burst into tears. Then that little joke at the end made me smile. But, really, isn’t pusillanimosity the perfect word for what happened this weekend?

Such is the genius of Ali Smith, that her novel set largely around the time of the 2016 Brexit vote in England could extend beyond that to take in feelings of distress as experienced all over the world.

Although the book does concern itself with politics and how those politics touch individuals and how those individuals respond, that’s not it’s only focus, perhaps not even its primary one. I think what its really about is how we see each other and how we want to be seen. It’s about the stories we tell about our lives and others and how it all fits together.

The book’s main character is a 32-year-old woman named Elisabeth. When Elisabeth was a child, she became friends with an elderly neighbor named Daniel. Daniel introduced Elisabeth to what her mother called “arty art,” and he encouraged her to think. And Elisabeth came to love him. Now, Daniel, at age 101, is dying, and Elisabeth visits him regularly to read to him.

As Daniel lies in his hospital bed, he dreams of youth and life, sometimes of being in a young body, sometimes of becoming one with nature. His dreams include images from stories he shared with Elisabeth. The dreams don’t always make sense, because they’re dreams.

The whole book has a sort of dreamlike quality, with the story drifting around in time, one idea or image leading to another. Not every bit of it worked for me, and sometimes the drifting around was too much, but that’s my love of story speaking. My love of language, however, was fully sated by this book. It’s a book of thoughts and images, and these Ali Smith handles exceptionally well. I loved it.

Once again, this year’s Booker longlist proves to be far and away better than last year’s.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 13 Comments

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

This ambitious novel by Arundhati Roy begins with the story of a woman named Anjum. Born intersex, Anjum was raised as a boy, but as soon as she was able to choose for herself she gave herself the name Anjum and went to live with a group of Hijra women in Delhi. Eventually, she created a new home community for herself in a derelict graveyard. Her story is intimate, focused on a few characters living their lives separate from the political unrest happening around the country. When they get caught up in violence, it’s by chance, not choice.

But after about 100 pages, the book takes a turn and we meet a new group of characters—a woman named Tilo and the intelligence officer (Biplab), freedom fighter (Musa), and journalist (Naga) who love her. Their story shifts from Delhi to Kashmir and back again, each taking a side in the war for Kashmir, and those choices affect their relationships with each other. Here, the book’s scope expands, and the Anjum story is left behind. The connection between the two is hinted at, but not spelled out until the conclusion, where all the major characters come back together, and their fates are revealed.

As I was reading, I found the shift in scope frustrating and the section about Tilo unecessarily confusing. Roy does not tell the story chronologically. She begins by having Biplap, the book’s only first-person narrator, share his memories in flashback—sometimes with flashbacks inside flashbacks. And then she runs at some of the same events as experienced by Musa, Naga, and Tilo. With each new telling of the same story, we get new information, and events that seem mysterious and incomprehensible take clearer shape. On reflection, I find this pretty ingenious although I struggled to really settle into the book.

Part of the struggle  is due to my own ignorance of the history of India and Kashmir. Roy refers to events, such as the 1984 Union Carbide explosion, that I vaguely remember hearing about, and I know there have been conflicts in Kashmir, but I don’t know much about them. This, of course, isn’t Roy’s fault, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to cater to my level of ignorance. It is, however, worth noting that if you’re like me and decide to read this, that you may need to consult Wikipedia once in a while to get your bearings.

In the end, I think that Anjum’s story and Tilo’s story could have been better tied together, although I think Roy is getting at some interesting ideas about identity and choice by telling both of these stories in the same novel. It is, at times, a very sad story, but there’s warmth and humor to it as well. It’s not my favorite among the Booker longlist, but it is excellent. In fact, all four books that I’ve read from this year’s list are superior to anything on last year’s list. Although Lincoln in the Bardo is my favorite so far, I’d have a hard time choosing between Exit West, The Underground Railroad, and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. All of them are fine novels, with some flaws. Here’s hoping the rest of the list is as strong.

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The Prime Minister

prime ministerTeresa and I have been slowly making our way through Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, and The Prime Minister is the fifth. This book splits itself into two threads, which brush each other but don’t influence each other heavily. One is the story of Ferdinand Lopez, a man of Portuguese descent who makes his money (such as it is) on speculation in the City, and his pursuit of Emily Wharton, a wealthy gentleman’s daughter and a lady to the tips of her fingers. The second returns us to the political fortunes of Plantagenet Palliser, who has been made the (guess what) Prime Minister, and the way he and his still somewhat indiscreet wife Glencora react to their new position in the world.

Jenny: This was a long book — nearly a thousand pages. Did you find that, over time, it held your interest? Was one of the stories more interesting than the other for you?

Teresa: It did! The only point where my interest started to flag even slightly was during the political machinations toward the end, but that’s mostly to do with my lack of understanding. I cared about how it would turn out for the characters. And Emily’s story could have ended a chapter or two earlier, once the outcome was obvious.

As for which I enjoyed more, Emily’s story was certainly the more intense and gripping. But I became so fond of Plantagenet Palliser in this book. His tendency to be almost too principled was a balm to my soul.

Jenny: I felt the same. I found out by accident a few days after I finished the book that decimal coinage didn’t happen in Britain until a hundred years later. A hundred years! Poor Planty Pall. I could have wept. He was the soul of honor, for himself and Glencora. And she turned up trumps here, too, even if she made mistakes. She really loved him, even when she was exasperated with him; she could see how fine he was even if it grated on her sense of timing.

Ferdinand Lopez was, of course, the polar opposite of the Prime Minister. He was a greedy liar; he was dishonorable and low; he was cruel and self-centered. About the only thing you could say for him is that he had all the cheek in the world — he wasn’t much of a coward. But what a man to read about.

Teresa: The thing about Lopez is that it takes quite a while to see what he is. For the first third or so of the book, there are hints that there might be money problems, but there have been lots of decent men with money problems in the series. The main objection anyone has to him is that he’s a foreigner and possibly Jewish. Mr. Wharton is clear that his concerned is mostly that he doesn’t know anything much about Lopez, and I can understand being worried about a total stranger marrying your daughter. Still, the panic among practically all of her acquaintances put me Lopez’s side until his greed surfaced.

One of the things I wonder is, how sincere was his love in the first place?

Jenny: I totally agree with you that the outspoken prejudice against Lopez inclined me to trust him. My question is, did Trollope expect that reaction a hundred and forty years later or so? Were we supposed to see him as an untrustworthy person because he was Portuguese and possibly Jewish and a speculator? Or were we supposed to be inclined to take his part, as Emily did, because so many people were against him?

I think Trollope makes it clear that Lopez loves Emily in his way, or as much as he can. But I think he would have chosen someone else to love in that way if she hadn’t been rich. There’s an incident close to the end of the book that makes me think it was more about the money than the girl, though probably about the girl in some sense as well.

Don’t you think that Quintus Slide has been, over time, even lower than Ferdinand Lopez? This book was, again, a real attack on the tabloid press.

Teresa: Quintus is one of those nasty people who keep popping up again and again. I felt so bad for poor Phineas, remembering what the press did to him. And in this book, he held the fate of the nation in his hands.

The presence of people like Quintus Slide is one of many ways that Trollope is still relevant today. The specifics may have changed, both in politics and in love, but the same types of people continue to exist.

So we’re now left with just one book in our Palliser adventure. Oddly enough, The Duke’s Children was my first introduction to Trollope when I read it in college. I’m looking forward to revisiting it with a much fuller knowledge of the characters’ histories.

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