Books I read this week: February week 2

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light is utterly fascinating. It’s a biography of the women (and a few of the men, but the focus is on the women) who worked (and in most cases, lived) in Virginia Woolf’s home as her servants.  The details are specific to these women, but their stories shine a light on the larger practice of having servants and the questions and problems that raised. It gives such a clear vision of that time period, and I really learned a lot. The focus on Virginia Woolf’s servants is especially interesting, given her feminism – it’s telling how ingrained some of her cultural beliefs were and how they competed with her intellectual beliefs.  The book covers all of Woolf’s life, so it shows the change in perception of service from the 1880s when service was really the only choice for lower class girls through the World wars when women moved out of service and into other professions.  It talks about various positive and negative social implications of service- orphans taught skills and the ability to earn a living, mistrust of people from a lower class, abuse by employers. It is jam packed with so much information, and I really really enjoyed it.

Those who lived in Bloomsbury felt hampered and irritated by servants, but they could not imagine a life without that division of labor which made housekeeping a female activity, and housework performed, where possible, by women in the lower classes.

Everyone, including Virginia, saw her madness as a sign of her specialness; her friends openly referred to it as a mark of her genius. … Servants’ illnesses were the product of unreason, self-induced or just plain malingering.

The Murder at the Vicarage  by Agatha Christie contains the first appearance of Miss Marple, and somehow I’d never read it before. It’s a typical set up, an aggravating man frustrates a bunch of different people who all threaten to kill him, and then he’s murdered. There are the standard appearances of anonymous notes, snoopy old ladies, clocks broken at the time of death, but they’re all excellently deployed. It’s a great mystery with some nice twists and red herrings.

I just read I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum today, and I had a similar experience to my experience with All My Puny Sorrows. I’d read that it was about an English artist who has an affair and then tries to win his wife back, and I figured it would be a witty little rom-com type story. However, it’s a gutting look at infidelity and its effect on a marriage. Richard is married to Anne-Laure, a gorgeous French lawyer. They have a beautiful little daughter and a lovely life, but Richard finds himself bored and drawn to the excitement of an affair with an American named Lisa. They have a seven month affair and then she announces that she’s breaking up with him to get married to someone else. His ensuing depression tips Anne-Laure off to the affair. At the same time, Richard has sold a painting that he originally painted for Anne-Laure, and it comes to symbolize what has been lost between them. As he travels from Paris to England (to deliver the painting) and back and forth again a few times, he realizes that he still deeply loves Anne-Laure and that he wants to reignite the love between them. At this point in the rom-com, there would be a montage of them going on dates and him sending her silly notes and winning her back over a matter of weeks that take the time of a 2 minute pop song in the movie. But in the book he comes to realize the deep damage he has caused, and it’s messy and painful. There are multiple points where you want to just slap him upside the head, but Maum really captures the sense of “oh crap, I’ve screwed everything up so badly and how do I fix my life” that is so easily skimmed over in movies. I’m not going to say more, but it’s a thought provoking look at marriage and love and not taking people for granted. There are a few fairly graphic sex scenes, just fyi, but they didn’t feel necessarily gratuitous because you’re in Richard’s head and it’s what he’s remembering.

Anne and I have been married over seven years now and I’ve cheated on her once. Depending how you look at it, this is either a very impressive or a highly repellent ratio.

Over dinner, I watched their gentle ministrations in a state of disbelief. I’d always seen their kindness toward each other as proof that they hadn’t traveled far enough or often enough, that they had uncomplicated brains. But now, as I watched my mother trim off a choice piece of fat from a lamb hunk for my father, when he transferred some of his potatoes to her plate when she ran out, when he got up, unasked, to fill our glasses with more water, all I saw was love.

What are you reading?

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