Review: Jean Rhys – Quartet

IMG_2252Paris in the 1920’s. Rainy and cold. Smoke filled cafes and run down hotel rooms. This is the bohemian setting for Jean Rhys’s Quartet. The novel tells the story of Marja, a woman who worked as a chorus girl and has no stable income or security in her life. When she marries the Polish art dealer Stephan Zelli, he promises to take care of her. And it seems she does have feelings for him, but how much those feelings are connected to the security he provides for her is not really clear. Her husband does keep his distance, has a very secretive life and when he has to go to prison, she is again forced to fend for herself. With no money or support system, living in an unfamiliar city she is forced to take drastic measures. In her desperation she accepts the invitation of a British couple, the Heidlers, to move in with them. But the invitation extends far beyond a living arrangement.

What stood out for me in this novel was the way the relationships were portrayed. Even though there are a lot of strong emotions between the characters, the relationships are never just black and white. Marja, even though she has feelings for both her husband and Heidler is also very aware of their flaws. She can never figure out her husband and his true feelings and is even afraid of the misogynistic Heidler at times. I felt that the depiction of these relationships, the way they are influenced by money, power or passion is at times messy but in the end still realistic:

“[…] poverty is the cause of many compromises.”

Nothing is simple in this novel. Not the people and not the feelings they have for each other. Following panic stricken Marja through the streets of Paris was definitely a striking experience. She was very aware of both herself and her social status in every interaction. Also, because she is a woman with very little to fall back on, she is either not taken seriously or taken advantage of:

“Stephan was secretive and a liar, but he was a very gentle and expert lover. She was the petted, cherished child, the desired mistress, the worshipped, perfumed goddess. She was all these things to Stephan – or so he made her believe.”

What made the story and its characters even more tangible is the fact that the novel is partly influenced by Rhys’s own experiences. Both Heidler and Zelli are based on real life characters. Marja’s affair with Heidler is the fictionalized account of her own affair with the writer Ford Madox Ford and Zelli shares similarities with her husband Jean Lenglet, who also had to spend time in prison.

I feel that Rhys is still a relevant writer today. Her style is very modern, both poetic and highly structured. Also, the statements her characters are making about anxiety, alienation and belonging are still as applicable as they were 90 years ago. Her novels give a voice to the underdogs of society as her characters are often living on the fringes of society. They often find themselves having to find their way through hardship and poverty while desperately trying to belong. She describes the lives of people with emotional and psychological problems, and gives a voice to the drunks, the mad and the poor. Almost everyone who has felt excluded or left out of society can relate to the novels written by Jean Rhys.

If you want to read more about Rhys, here is are two interesting articles from The Independent and The Paris Review.


Quote: Jean Rhys – Quartet

“She spent the foggy day in endless, aimless walking, for it seemed to her that if she moved quickly enough she would escape the fear that hunted her. It was a vague and shadowy fear of something cruel and stupid that had caught her and would never let her go. She had always known that it was there – hidden under the more or less pleasant surface of things. Always. Ever since she was a child.
You could argue about hunger or cold or loneliness, but with that fear you couldn’t argue. It went too deep. You were too mysteriously sure of its terror. You could only walk very fast and try to leave it behind you.”

Flea Market Findings


I went to the flea market in Neukölln today and found some lovely books. I am especially happy about finding this pretty edition of The Waves. The short story collection contains The Voyage by Katherine Mansfield, which I have been meaning to read for a while. Also, I still haven’t read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so I was happy when I found it today.

Here is a list of the books I bought:

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-Five

Junot Díaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Amy Tan – The Valley of Amazement

Robert & Edward Skidelsky – How much is Enough?

Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills

Virginia Woolf – The Waves

The Penguin Book of English Short Stories

Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

image1In the novel Luckiest Girl Alive Jessica Knoll takes the reader into the mind of 28-year-old TifAni FaNelli. Told from her perspective, we first get to see the life of present day Ani – as she prefers to be called now – and all the success that comes with it. She has the perfect position at a famous magazine. She is planning her Nantucket wedding to her successful and rich fiancé. And she is almost a size zero. But all these things don’t come easy to her and more importantly they do not make her happy. They are all just part of a façade she has been putting up for years. At the point just before you start to hate her, Knoll confronts the reader with Ani’s disturbing prep school past. And suddenly the glamour of her present day life is contrasted sharply with violence, rape and lots of blood.

Jessica Knoll has written an interesting portrait of a woman who is not your typical heroine. She is not easily approachable, or even likable for that matter. She is not very emotional and goes for things in life that we’ve been taught we don’t need to go for anymore. We, as independent women, should not need a husband to show the world that we are worthy. So why does Ani still go for these things? The answer lies in her troubled past.

One aspect that made Luckiest Girl Alive important to me was the treatment and definition of rape. Ani goes through different phases in the novel. First there is denial (and laughing at her rapists jokes), followed by trying to get back in control and finally confronting her past head on. The reactions that people have to Ani’s rape vary greatly. Some blame her, others don’t even see it as rape and very few help her deal with it. I think the important and central point that Knoll is making, is that rape is always rape. And the responsibility always lies with the rapist, never the victim.

Luckiest Girl Alive is a smart and unconventional novel with a story that may seem unusual but is based partly on the author’s life. I didn’t see all the twists coming and I couldn’t figure out Ani’s character until the very end. I liked the way the story was told through flashbacks and I also thought the statements that Knoll made about sexual consent are quite important. Ani was a difficult and complicated character to be with. But you don’t have to like her, you just have to listen.

Review: Mary Miller – The Last Days of California

IMG_2530Jessica is on a journey across the country and possibly to eternal life with her religious fundamentalist parents and older sister Elise. They stop at Waffle Houses, Burger Kings and cheesy motels, handing out end-time pamphlets during the day and making out with boys at night.

The road trip is cramming the family together in a small car, everyone’s secrets included. Elise is pregnant, Jessica is questioning her faith and her parents are as mysterious as parents usually are to their teenage children. But have they left Montgomery, Alabama to witness the Second Coming of Jesus “in Pacific Time” like her parents told her or could it be that they have left because her father has lost his job (again) and her mother is unhappy? Even though they are all riding in the same car, everyone is on their own separate journey. Especially the sister struggle, not only with their relationship with each other but also with their individual problems. Thrown together they have to rely on each other, in ways that they wouldn’t have at home. And even though they might fight in the car, at night when the sneaking, the drinking and partying begins, they have each others back. But even though the novel depicts the bond of the two sisters, the story does mainly belong to Jessica and her first real encounters with boys. To her the quest to California is getting less and less about religion and more about becoming a woman. Following her on that road trip, to pick up trucks and bath rooms, were she has to make decisions that she might not be ready for I got reminded what it was like to be a teenage girl, experiencing love for the first time:

“It felt a little like love, though I’d never been in love and couldn’t say for sure what it was. I wondered if it would always feel like pain.”

What makes this novel so great is that it is never just funny or just emotional. Religious fundamentalism and moral questions are balanced out with Pop Culture, humour and teenage life:

“I searched for something to listen to on my iPod, scrolled through each of my playlists. Before leaving Montgomery, I’d made a Heaven mix and Elise had made an End of the World mix, but I was already tired of the songs I’d chosen. I decided on a mix called Jogging, though I never jogged. It hurt my knees.”

Not everything will get solved on this road trip. In ways the family has to come to terms with why they really left, and what it is that each of them is searching for. Does where they come from define where they will go?

When I picked up The Last Days of California reminded me a little of Mission to America by Walter Kirn. And yes, there were some similarities, the large quantities of junk food the characters ate and the isolation that sometimes comes with religious fundamentalism. But Miller showed a more emotional side of these topics and to me I felt like her characters were fare more realistic than in Mission to America.

Mary Miller – The Last Days of California

“It could be terrible having a family – you had to suffer their pains and disappointments along with your own – but the good stuff couldn’t be shared, at least not in the same way.”