tisdag 15 april 2014

Country-house mysticism (huh?) and Upstairs Downstairs-inspired family saga (yay - I think)

Yes, I know, my blog posts on television have by far outnumbered the ones on books this year. But quite apart from the lengthy Downton debriefing, TV has been more satisfactory than my book choices in 2014, just like in 2013. My best reads so far have been rereads - the Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde, for instance, about which I've already blogged in detail. I did manage to finish Affinity by Sarah Waters in the end, and it was worthwhile, but I'd still recommend newcomers to Waters to start with Fingersmith. Affinity took a much longer time to get going, and troublesome though the protagonists of Fingersmith could be, they were still more likeable - at least Sue was - than slippery Selina the medium and Margaret Prior, the main narrator of Affinity, who is frankly a bit of a moaner. What the two books have in common is a certain sharpness. Kindness is rare and, when it manifests itself, often exploited.

Maybe it was the contrast to the hard world of Waters that made me stick to Farundell by L.R. Fredericks until the end, although I was often impatient with it. At least the atmosphere was friendly, for the most part. Judging from the blurb text, you would have thought that here was the old Brideshead Revisited plot: lonely outsider falls in a big way for eccentric aristocratic family. In fact, Farundell is full of mystic references to out-of-body experiences, the Romans' worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis, and jungle tribes' initiation rites, not to mention a great deal of pseudo-deep babble about the nature of existence. Though it dutifully mentions "magic both black and white", the blurb doesn't really prepare the reader for all of this. What's more, the hero Paul can be trying and his love interest Sylvie even more so. It's the Estella syndrome - it's hard to warm to a girl whom the hero falls inexplicably, painfully in love with, as you're bound to wonder to a certain degree what the fuss is about. But the eccentric family, a few irritating quirks aside (such as a prejudice against Christianity which seems allied to their new-agey goings-on), are a sweet bunch, and you can see why Paul thinks of their sort-of country seat Farundell as a haven.

Last but not least, I've now just started reading Habits of the House, the first volume in a family saga trilogy called "Love and Inheritance" set in turn-of-the-century England and written by Fay Weldon. I know! It seems an unbeatable concept, especially when you bear in mind that Weldon, apart from being a celebrated writer, also wrote the screenplay for the first episode of the original Upstairs Downstairs, as well as for two or three more episodes. So it's not as if she's not tried her hand at this sort of thing before, and with considerable success. As my expectations were so high, it is maybe inevitable that I should be a little disappointed in the characters so far. Perhaps the territory has got a bit over-familiar even for me, because I feel myself ticking off the standard Edwardian costume drama/family saga characters in my head. Devoted upstairs couple from different social backgrounds - check. Handsome son who runs up debts and is a bit wild - check. Wilful, rebellious daughter who propagates women's rights - check. Disgruntled maid - check. Cheeky footman - check (and good-looking, of course - not that I mind that bit). And so on.        

I don't mind a certain stock character feel in this context, really - though I am heartily tired of rebellious suffragette daughters, it has to be said - but the question is whether you will care for this family and their staff in the end, as you certainly do in Upstairs Downstairs (and Downton, it goes without saying). Weldon's Upstairs Downstairs episodes were not the most heart-warming ones, though they were witty and well-written. Anyway, even if it turns out that Habits of the House doesn't exactly pull at the heart strings, it still promises to be good fun. And that is worth a lot.