Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: Good Things I Wish You by A. Manette Ansay

Good Things I Wish You by A. Manette Ansay
Paperback, 272 pages
Harper Perennial; 1 edition (June 22, 2010)

I was provided a copy by the publisher in support of my participation in the TLC Book Tour.

Summary from the author's website:
The acclaimed author of Vinegar Hill and Midnight Champagne returns with a compelling tale of two summer romances, separated in time by over one hundred and fifty years.

At forty-two, Jeanette Hochmann—newly divorced from her husband of more than a decade—struggles to reassemble her life with her young daughter. Lately, the world seems bereft of the passion that’s always inspired and sustained her, first as a child prodigy at the piano, later as a teacher and writer of fiction. Now, she can’t seem to get traction on her latest book, a novel based on the forty-year relationship between nineteenth-century German pianist Clara Schumann and her husband’s handsome young protégé, the composer Johannes Brahms.

Through a chance encounter, Jeanette meets a native of Leipzig, Clara’s birthplace—a mysterious entrepreneur whose casual help with translations of diaries and letters blooms into something more. There are things about men and women, he insists, that do not change. The two embark on a whirlwind emotional journey that leads Jeanette to a similar crossroads faced by Clara Schumann—as a mother, as an artist—well over a century before.

Beautifully designed, enhanced with photographs, sketches and notes from both present and past, A. Manette Ansay’s original blend of fiction and historical fact captures the timeless nature of love and friendship between women and men.

My Thoughts:
I enjoyed how Good Things I Wish You combined a historical story with a contemporary one.  The reader is first introduced to Jeanette, who is a modern-day author setting out on the dating scene after having been divorced.  The novel then began to transition back and forth between Jeanette's story and that of pianist and composer Clara Schumann in the nineteenth-century. 

The relationship between Clara and Johannes Brahms was a forbidden one.  I believe that Ansay captured the interesting relationship quite well.  Johannes offerings to Clara were significant, even though their relationship could not move beyond friendship while Clara's husband was alive.  Johannes offered Clara the freedom that she needed in order to pursue her career.  I wondered near the end of the novel whether Johannes would come to resent Clara, after having given so much for so long.

Jeanette's relationship with Hart was strange to me and I never felt the connection between them.  Hart was weird to me - Ansay provided bits of biographical information about him, but I didn't feel enough emotion from him in order for me to connect with him as a character.  I believe that Hart's daughter Friederike provided a bond between Hart and Jeanette that may not have existed had Friederike not been there.  Her music and her connections in Leipzig gave Jeanette the opportunity for additional research on Clara and Brahms, and provided the excuse for a shared trip for Hart and Jeanette.  In Friederike's absence, I wonder whether Hart and Jeanette would have connected in Germany at all.

Though I enjoyed both Jeanette's story and that of Clara, I did not find enough similarities between the two in order to make the novel flow back and forth seamlessly.  Both women had a similar drive for their careers, and both were impacted greatly by the mental illness of their spouse.  Where the women showed such great contrast was in the relationship with their children.  Jeanette seemed to have great concern and focus for Heidi's well-being, while Clara seemed to surrender her children to Johannes while she toured for her career.  There were parallels between these two women, but not enough for me to not wonder whether their stories belonged together in the same book.

In the end, I enjoyed Good Things I Wish You.  It was a fast read and I thought the historical research extremely well done.  I like both Jeanette and Clara's stories - the historical fiction lover in me liked Clara's a bit more.  Even though I sometimes struggled to see how the two women related to each other, I found the novel pleasant overall.
Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in this tour.

Other Participants on the TLC Book Tour for Good Things I Wish You:
Tuesday, June 22nd: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Wednesday, June 23rd: nomadreader
Wednesday, June 30th: Rundpinne
Thursday, July 1st: Lisa’s Yarns
Tuesday, July 6th: The Lost Entwife
Wednesday, July 7th: Café of Dreams
Tuesday, July 13th: Hospitable Pursuits
Wednesday, July 14th: Books Like Breathing
Thursday, July 15th: Coconut Library

Blog Note: I am an Amazon Associate. I will make a small profit if you purchase a book after following one of the links in this post. Profits will be used to support giveaways and site maintenance.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Anna Karenina Read Along: Part 6

Mari at Bookworm with a View is hosting a Read Along of Anna Karenina.  We are reading one of the novel's eight parts each month.  I have posted a synopsis and my responses to the discussion questions for Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five.

Mari has posted discussion questions for Part Six on her site.  If you have read Anna before, or if you are reading along with us, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this part.

Part Six Synopsis (Wikipedia):
Dolly, her mother the Princess Scherbatskaya, and Dolly's children spend the summer with Levin and Kitty on the Levins' country estate. The Levins' life is simple and unaffected, although Levin is uneasy at the "invasion" of so many Scherbatskys. He is able to cope until he is consumed with an intense jealousy when one of the visitors, Veslovsky, flirts openly with the pregnant Kitty. Levin tries to overcome his jealousy but eventually succumbs to it and in an embarrassing scene evicts Veslovsky from his house. Veslovsky immediately goes to stay with Anna and Vronsky, whose estate is close by.

Dolly also pays a short visit to Anna at Vronsky's estate. The difference between the Levins' aristocratic but simple home life and Vronsky's overtly luxurious and lavish country home strikes Dolly, who is unable to keep pace with Anna's fashionable dresses or Vronsky's extravagant spending on the hospital he is building. However, all is not quite well with Anna and Vronsky. Dolly is also struck by Anna's anxious behaviour and new habit of half closing her eyes when she alludes to her difficult position. When Veslovsky flirts openly with Anna, she plays along with him even though she clearly feels uncomfortable. Vronsky makes an emotional request to Dolly, asking her to convince Anna to divorce her husband so that the two might marry and live normally. Dolly broaches the subject with Anna, who appears not to be convinced. However, Anna is becoming intensely jealous of Vronsky, and cannot bear it when he leaves her for short excursions. The two have started to quarrel about this and when Vronsky leaves for several days of provincial elections, a combination of boredom and suspicion convinces Anna she must marry him in order to prevent him from leaving her. She writes to Karenin, and she and Vronsky leave the countryside for Moscow.

My Thoughts:
Enough with the hunting scenes, already.  Part Six was very difficult for me to get through.  Just when I had given up hope, the last several pages brought me back to the topics that I enjoy reading in Anna Karenina.  I still am enjoying the dynamics between Kitty and Levin - I think that it is interesting how jealousy played such a strong part in this section for Levin.  Tolstoy's writing is beautiful, and his ability to capture and describe human emotion is excellent. Despite my frustration with the section, his talent was apparent in Part Six - Levin's jealousy, Dolly's concern for Anna and her self-evaluation, and Anna's struggles with her emotions.

I have mentioned that I read Anna Karenina before.  Up until Part Six, I didn't remember anything about the story line.  It is starting to come back to me in pieces, so I'm anxious to get to Parts Seven and Eight, so I can have the full picture again.

Discussion Questions (from
1.Talk about Dolly's visit to see Anna. What do you think of Anna's "secret" and her reasons for keeping it?

I think that Anna is starting to doubt herself and her relationship with Vronsky.  Their isolation has turned her into a different person, I think.  Dolly's visit meant so much to Anna - she needed a friend to confide in.  I think that Dolly may have regretted her decision to visit Anna, and the book told of how she was anxious to be back with her family, even after a short while.  I understand Anna's hesitation to tell Vronsky that she will be unable to have more children.  She feels that she is struggling to keep him interested - admitting her secret to Vronsky may be seen as a flaw that may turn him away.

2. Has Anna and Vronsky's love affair grown healthier now that they are away from the prying eyes of society? Do you feel they are still in love with each other?

I think that Vronsky has found out a great deal about himself by being away from Moscow and St. Petersburg.  He enjoys the privileges and work that goes along with being a landowner. I think that Anna and Vronsky have grown into a comfortable relationship, similar to that of a couple who has been married for a few years.  I think that Anna wants to be with Vronsky, but I sense that she wants to be with him more out of fear of losing him, than out of love.  I do believe that Vronsky loves Anna, but he also loves his freedom and is working to test the limits of Anna's control over him.

3. At the end of Part Six, Anna and Vronsky settle in Moscow expecting of a divorce from Karenin. Knowing what you know, do you expect him to grant it?

I doubt that Karenin will grant the divorce.  He is now under the influence of Countess Lydia Ivanovna, which may have an impact on his decision.  The granting of a divorce is Karenin's last bit of control over Anna and I don't anticipate that he will want to relinquish that control.

I am ready to move on to Part Seven!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Author Interview: Jill Dawson

I am very excited to have had the opportunity to interview author Jill Dawson.  I recently read her most recent novel The Great Lover as part of a TLC Book Tour (my review here).  As a lover of historical fiction, I was impressed by the research that went into Rupert Brooke's life and the historical setting.

Jill Dawson was extremely gracious - I hope that you enjoy her thoughts as much as I have.

I learned that you performed a significant amount of research on Rupert Brooke’s life prior to writing The Great Lover, which included travel to locations where he lived and visited during his life. Can you describe your research process and your favorite surprises about his life?

I think of my research process as a little like method acting. Or a kind of immersion technique. So it’s not all about books, documents and archive material (although that too, of course). It’s also about swimming in the River Cam (as Rupert did) seeing honey being ‘spun’ (as Nell does), making beeswax candles (Nell again) swimming in the sea off the coast of Tahiti (Rupert) – you get the idea. I don’t think all writers should work this way; a novel is after all, a work of imagination. But for me the research is such fun, I find it hard to stop! Some lovely surprises about Rupert was to be offered his diary to hold by the man who owns the Orchard where Brooke lived. Also, that after the novel came out someone told me they had met Brooke’s daughter in the 1970s (she died in the 90s) and that I was right to believe she existed. Then there was the cache of sexy letters between Brooke and Phyllis Gardner that had only recently come to light, and has not yet been incorporated into any biographies or scholarly works on him.

After the novel was finished I took my family to the Greek island of Skyros where Rupert is buried and visited his grave, which is on a lonely and bare part of the island. Another surprise for me was how moved I felt. How well I felt I knew him. I wondered if his mother had ever travelled there to visit him and learned that she had, but many years later.

I was intrigued by your quote in This Side of Paradise in the About the Book section of The Great Lover: “Novelists thrive on the gaps in a story, the murky places that only imagination can illuminate.” Which biographical gap in Rupert Brooke’s life would you say had the most impact on The Great Lover?

Hmmm….I’m not sure now! Perhaps one thing I was thinking of was that Rupert wrote lots of letters but was so clever and funny and witty in them and so good at dissembling that it took a lot of unpicking to figure out when he was being serious, and what he might really have meant to say. Also, his time in Tahiti, which seemed to have such an impact on his writing, but was documented in only a few letters and poems.

I felt that Nell was an excellent compliment to Rupert Brooke’s character in The Great Lover. How was her character created or inspired?

I’m glad you liked Nell – I found myself liking her immensely. I think she embodies the characteristics I always admire: plain speaking, an ability to look squarely at her own self (eventually, anyway!) and practical domestic skills (which I don’t have at all) of making a home, cooking, sewing that kind of thing. My father’s mother was a maid in service, but I didn’t know her well. So I think Nell may have sub-consciously been based partly on my sister Debra who has great warmth and a knack of making any house she lives in or visits seem homely and welcoming.

I wanted to suggest that Nell’s talent was to love. She is The Great Lover of the title in the end – she loves her bees, she loves Rupert, she loves her father (despite his lack of warmth towards her), she loves her job, her family back home, she loves her son. To me to love well is a gift that few people have, but Nell definitely does.

Have you given thought to what type of life Rupert Brooke may have led if his life had not been cut short?

I love his prose writing – supple, witty, ironic, playful – and I’ve wondered if he might have become a novelist. He did say in one letter that he wanted to write a novel about his Tahitian love, Tatamaata. So I did it for him….

What have you found to be your favorite part of publicizing your books?

Travelling! I’ve just come back from Hong Kong, Beijing, New Zealand….there’s something special about meeting people in countries and cultures that I’m not familiar with, who have read my books and want to talk to me about them. Does writing travel? Does imagination travel? I’ve just come back from a conference here in the UK debating those ideas. My strongest sense of this was taking part in a project in Russia where 150 academics were reading (and teaching) my second novel, Magpie. I did feel touched that they ‘got’ the novel. There is a Russian saying which someone translated to me as: ‘what comes from the heart reaches the heart.’ Over and over they told me that. I felt highly complimented.

I read a interview where you commented that you approach your writing as if you are writing for a stranger, and that you do not need to know what people think. For this reason, do you avoid reading reviews of your work? If not, do you incorporate review comments into your future works?

Yes I still feel I’m writing for a stranger, even though I meet my readers very often, and I do read reviews. It’s just that the writing mode is a different one than the publicising mode – writing is almost done in a trance state and I feel that reading a novel is best when it’s an intimate experience: one human voice echoing in your own head. I later incorporate into the book I’m working on my editor’s comments and my husband’s comments and my agent’s comments – and that’s it! I can only cope with three.

I learned that you are the current director of Gold Dust, a mentoring scheme for writers. Do you have a favorite moment from this experience, or a time where you felt that you had an impact on a young writer?

I love mentoring. One of our Gold Dust mentors, novelist Jane Rogers, was my mentor when I was just starting out – she taught me on an MFA in Creative Writing that I did. I know how valuable the right word at the right moment, from someone you know is well-regarded and serious about writing, can be. It felt to me as though Jane gave me permission to write the novel I was working on, and a few practical tips – such as use a map to get the sense of place right – and then a whole lot more: confidence, optimism. It really pleases me that now under the scheme I set up she mentors other new writers. We have sixteen mentors of a very high calibre, all published and many of them short-listed for prizes like the Booker or the Orange.

You are currently adapting Wild Boy for the screen. Do you enjoy the screenplay writing format? How is the process different from your prior writing experiences?

Yes, I do enjoy writing screenplays because I tend to think in scenes, and to have one central character that I’m following, a device which works as well in film as in novels. What is different is that having written a script, the process of being ‘in development’ is long and nightmarish.

I read that you will be traveling to Sri Lanka in 2011 for the Galle Literary Festival. What is the most enjoyable traveling experience that you have had in relation to your writing career? Do you find inspiration from your travels?

That’s easy. A few years ago I went swimming with hump-back whales in the Caribbean as part of research into the life of a marine biologist, for my novel Watch Me Disappear. (I also wrote a piece for The Times which you can read on my website on the journalism page). The humpback mothers and calves were the most extraordinarily impressive creatures and being under-water with them was spooky and awe-inspiring.

What do you have planned next?

I’ve just finished and delivered an early draft of my seventh novel, Lucky Bunny, about the life of Queenie Dove, a contemporary Moll Flanders…..should be out in 2011, fingers crossed!

Thank you Jill for taking the time to answer my questions.  I will be looking forward to Lucky Bunny next year!

Jill Dawson's Website: