Tuesday, June 20, 2023

the last book I read

Temples Of Delight by Barbara Trapido.

Alice Pilling's life is pretty good by most people's standards - comfortably-off parents, albeit a bit on the slightly vulgar nouveau riche side prone to occasionally pronouncing French words incorrectly, a nice place at a nice private school for nice girls - but she craves a bit of, I dunno, excitement, even danger. This promptly arrives in the person of Veronica McCrail, known to all her friends as Jem, a tall and confident girl much given to snarky back-sassery to teachers, enthusiasm for works of subversive art and literature and hilarious stories of her hilarious family and their adventures - all pretty transparently bogus, but Alice is a sweet and trusting and gullible type, so it's all good. The two strike up a close, if somewhat mismatched, friendship, which is abruptly terminated when Jem fails to secure a scholarship to continue her studies in the Upper School (the sixth form, basically, or, erm, year thirteen or so in the crazy modern system). 

Alice's continuing academic excellence has her lined up for a place at Oxford, and it's there that she meets with Roland Dent, a local schoolteacher, and they strike up a relationship. While Alice seems quite content to drift along having nice day trips and occasionally hanging out with Roland's schoolboys who are slightly breathlessly intimidated by an Actual Woman, Roland already has some major plans for Alice which culminate in his making her Mrs. Dent. On a trip to the north of England with some of the boys Alice and Roland take some time out for a drive in the countryside, whereupon he makes it clear that they will shortly be parking in a secluded woodland spot so that he can deflower her, whereupon she makes it clear that this will be happening over her dead body and as if to prove the point drives the car off a bridge and into a river.

In the wake of this unsuccessful relationship, and while recuperating from the crash, Alice then enters, perhaps rather rashly, into another relationship with Matthew Riley, the young man who helped to rescue her and Roland from their drowned car. Then, after five years of silence, a letter arrives from Jem with some news: firstly she is in a Catholic hospital in Hampshire dying from cancer, secondly that she is pregnant and due to give birth imminently, and thirdly that she has come into possession of some information about a novel shortly to be published by an American publisher which she believes plagiarises some of her own teenage writings, and wants Alice to deal with it after she's gone.

Dealing with the novel situation involves engaging with Giovanni Angeletti, the American publisher in question, who happens to be in the country and accompanies Alice on a lengthy search for Jem's original manuscript. Once this is found Giovanni takes it upon himself to track down Jem and, having done so just too late to allow Alice to see her again before she dies, drops the bombshell that Jem's dying wish was that Alice be the legal guardian of her (safely delivered) child. 

So Giovanni will now jet off back to America and out of Alice's life, right? Well, no, actually, as in addition to there being a few novel-related (not to mention baby-related) loose ends to tie up, it turns out Giovanni has a non-academic interest in Alice, even after she reveals that she herself is pregnant, presumably as a result of her brief (and now ended) relationship with Matthew. Will Jem's writings ever see the light of day (now under her own name rather than that of the plagiarist)? Will Giovanni still want to make Alice the third Mrs. Angeletti? Will Alice want to become the third Mrs. Angeletti, especially after discovering that both the previous holders of that title died in slightly mysterious circumstances?

Those of you with absurdly long memories will recall that I read Juggling, which is a loose sequel to Temples Of Delight, back in early 2007 (it was the 12th book review on this list, this one being the 370th). Back in those days the reviews were a bit less verbose so I see that I didn't include much in the way of plot detail, but basically it involves Alice's two daughters and their adventures. I don't remember much about it (I mean, it was 16 years ago) but I remember enjoying it greatly, as I have every Barbara Trapido book that I've read (with the possible exception of Frankie & Stankie which I did have some reservations about). Temples Of Delight is no exception, despite the implausibilities of plot - partly this is because some parts of it, and some of the characters, are supposed to mirror the plot and characters of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. You've got to be a bit careful with this to avoid your readers concluding that you're just manoeuvring your characters into situations according to some pre-conceived formula, rather than just letting things happen, but of course if your readers are smart enough to worry about this stuff they'll presumably be smart enough to realise that this is actually how most novels get written anyway, just less transparently. Another similar example on this list is A Thousand Acres which mirrors the structure of Shakespeare's King Lear, and just as there I was not troubled by any particular familiarity with the source material here, which in many ways is probably a good thing.

Anyway, Temples Of Delight is itself a delight to read; I suppose what I would say is if you have the choice it would probably be better to read it and Juggling in the "right" order in order to have the shared narrative flow a bit better. Doesn't really matter, though. 

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