Sunday, June 17, 2007

Beach Reads

After a leisurely week at the beach, I was able to finish three of the five books that I took with me down to Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Title: They Do It With Mirrors (or, Murder with Mirrors in America)
Author: Agatha Christie
Country: Britain
Year: 1952
Rating: B+
Pages: 207 pgs.

First sentence: Mrs. Van Rydock moved a little back from the mirror and sighed.

What can I say about Agatha Christie? It is always a delight to delve into one of her mysteries, particularly those involving the always entertaining Miss Marple. Set in an unkempt British mansion which has largely been converted into a philanthropic project for juvenile delinquents, Miss Marple is visiting an old school friend when murder and mayhem appear in the well-to-do family. An amazing number of suspects leads to an interesting mystery in which Miss Marple, as always, keeps one step ahead of the local police investigators. Not her best work, but still a charming novel.

Title: The Mermaid Chair
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Year: 2005
Rating: C-
Pages: 335 pgs.

First sentence: In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh's wife and Dee's mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a Benedictine monk.

The Mermaid Chair was in theory a great pick to read as I sat on the beach, luxuriating in the sun. The story took place on fictional Egret Island, in which I recognized many characteristics of the South Carolina low country sea islands, especially such islands as Bull Island and Daufuskie. It also made me pine for what Hilton Head island must have been like before the bridge was built and the wealthy descended (can you tell I am not a fan of the island in its current state?).

Unfortunately, the story fell far short of its predecessor, The Secret Life of Bees. The Mermaid Chair, in its simplest form, is the story of Jessie's mid-life search for her lost identity and individualism, and a return to her family and roots on the island that she fled from after her father was killed in a boating accident.

The story had an extremely slow start. Jessie's affair with an almost-monk is unbelievable and borders on drivel; the characterizations were horrendous and barely readable; the plot twisted and turned in ways that were not quite entertaining. The only redeeming quality to the book, which garnered my slightly below average rating, was the description of the landscape. There were small moments when the authors talent really shined through. Too bad it was hidden below so many layers of disappointing hodgepodge.

Title: An Unsuitable Attachment
Author: Barbara Pym
Country: Britain
Year: 1982
Rating: A-
Pages: 207 pgs.

First sentence: They are watching me, thought Rupert Stonebird, as he saw the two women walking rather too slowly down the road.

This is the second book I have read by Barbara Pym. After reading Excellent Women a few years ago and really enjoying it, I wasn't too sure what to expect from her other books. An Unsuitable Attachment is a quiet, simple story about rather ordinary, well-to-do gentlemen and women going about life in St Basil's parish, set in a not very fashionable quarter in London, I believe sometime around the 1960's. Pym is very adept at describing the social conventions and mores of her own time and socio-economic class, which is what draws me to her novels. It was an enjoyment to become acquainted with the characters in the novel: Mark and Sophia Ainger, the parish vicar and his wife, who treats their cat Faustina like a spoiled child; Ianthe, a "middle-age" woman on her way to becoming a spinster until fate intervenes; Rupert Stonechild, an anthropologist who has certainly never studied or understood the wishes and desires of British women; and many others. Overall, a charming novel.


Dewey said...

I just love Agatha Christie. Once I was in the hospital for 3 months, and someone noticed I was reading an Agatha Christie novel. So it got spread around that I liked her, and soon I had piles of her books! I think I read nothing but Christie that whole time in the hospital, but I didn't mind at all.

teabird said...

There's nothing like Barbara Pym for showing you the depth behind a quiet life - I'm glad you liked the book!

JMC said...

I didn't particularly like The Mermaid Chair, either. I agree that it didn't touch The Secret Life of Bees. For infinitely better southern novels, try Pat Conroy. Beach Music is wonderful.

Traveller said...

I love what you had to say about the Pym - makes me want to go out and read it.

SuziQoregon said...

I loved The Secret Life of Bees to read it twice. The Mermaid Chair was a huge disappointment.

I agree with JMC - try Beach Music. I read that about 10 years ago and it's near the top of my 'books I want to reread' list.

3M said...

I need to try Pym sometime. That's too bad about The Mermaid Chair. Guess I'll skip it.

Maggie said...

Oh, I'm so sorry you didn't like The Mermaid Chair and I hope it didn't effect your vacation! I had a lot of fun writing a booktalk for this book. I think my focus was less on the romance (blah) and more on the mystery of why her mother chops off her fingers.

I totally agree, it's no Secret Life of Bees. :)

Lotus Reads said...

I so adore Agatha Christie, I think I might have read almost everything she's written because I spent nearly 2 years of my life reading only Christie novels, but that was a long,long time ago.

My mom read "The Mermaid's Chair" and she didn't like it very much either!

Glad you're back!

iliana said...

I'm just getting into the Christie books and the three I've read have been really fun. I will definitely read more by her. And, I just discovered Barbara Pym recently. I loved Jane & Prudence.

Nyssaneala said...

@dewey - I would love to do an Agatha Christie marathon someday, preferably after I accumulate all of her books. (but hopefully, not in a hospital!) Sorry to hear you had to be in the hospital for such a length of time, even if it was a while ago.

@teabird - I'll have to try to get a copy of Jane and Prudence after your Booking Through Thursday rec. I think it's her only book I don't have. btw, if I had ever gotten around to doing that week's Booking, my author would have been Anne Frank.

Nyssaneala said...

@jmc - I thought I had read a lot of Southern authors before I started the Southern Reading Challenge. I'm now discovering how many are out there. I've read Prince of Tides, will have to check out Beach Music some day.

@traveller - A good Pym book to start with is Excellent Women. It's an excellent book!

@suziq - It will be interesting to see what Sue Monk Kidd comes out with next.

@3m - Try Excellent Women, it's a great book, and her most well known.

Nyssaneala said...

@maggie - nope, no effect on my vacation! I did enjoy the descriptions of the fictional but realistic Egret island.

@lotus reads - It is so much fun to escape in a Christie novel. My hubby was a tad annoyed when I discovered on our honeymoon last year that our hotel suite had a mini library with tons of Christie mysteries! :)

@iliana - which ones have you read? I think I've read 5 or 6 now, so I still have a long way to go.