By Angela Huth
St. Martin's Press/ A Thomas Dunne Book
378 pp., $23.95 By L.
A FINE BALANCE
By Rohinton Mistry
Alfred A. Knopf
640 pp., $26
THE OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH LOVE STORIES
Edited by John Sutherland
Oxford University Press
University of Nebraska Press
285 pp., $35
Summer's the time for something a little different: a change of pace, a break with the routine.
Readers willing to make the substantial investment of time and attention that a novel of real substance demands will be well rewarded for their efforts when they venture into the turbulent, teeming, richly detailed world of Rohinton Mistry's second novel, A Fine Balance.
Set in modern India, but reminiscent of the great European novels of the 19th century in its ambitious scope, this powerful book tells the stories of four people. Their lives intersect when they share an apartment in Bombay, just as their country is being subjected to the harsh strictures of Indira Gandhi's declaration of a state of emergency in 1975.
Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, uncle and nephew, are tailors fleeing violence in their native village. Dina Dalal, their new employer and landlady, is a widowed seamstress, struggling to maintain her independence. Maneck Kohlah, a student who grew up in the Himalayas, has been sent to board at Dina's by his mother, who was Dina's school friend years ago, when the clever young girl seemed to have a much brighter future ahead of her than fate held in store. Dina and Maneck are Parsis. Ishvar and Omprakash come from a Hindu family of the untouchable caste, and indeed, have transgressed the old restrictions by becoming tailors instead of humble cobblers.
The struggles of these characters to make decent and fulfilling lives for themselves are played out against the volatile background of sectarian violence and under the darkening shadow of the suspension of individual rights in the state of emergency. It is a sobering, at times harrowing, story, superbly told.
The English countryside during World War II is the gentler setting for Angela Huth's novel Land Girls, which deals with the adventures of three young English women assigned to work on a West Country farm in the summer of 1941.
Faith and John Lawrence are taciturn, hardworking farmers in need of extra help. The young recruits seem unlikely candidates for the heavy labor and dirty work involved. Agatha is an intellectual Cambridge undergraduate who loves literature. Stella is a soft-spoken Surrey girl who pines for her fianc, Philip, who is serving in the Navy. And Prue is a flirtatious hairdresser from Manchester who uses enough cheap perfume to nearly overpower the smells of the barnyard. (Not having been at an English boarding school like the other two girls, Prue is additionally shocked by the primitive living conditions so different from her Mum's cozy flat in the city.)
Also on hand is the Lawrences' quiet, handsome son Joe, rejected for national service due to failing health, but evoking a higher level of interest among the three visitors. The young women rise to the challenge of farm work, depicted here in fascinating and convincing detail. They milk cows, plow fields, harvest fruit, clean pigsties, and examine sheep for hoof decay. They also discover a lot about themselves and one another, forging a three-way friendship that survives the vicissitudes that each of them undergoes in her romantic life.
Huth, who displayed a sparkling wit in her earlier novel, "Invitation to the Married Life," is more subdued here, but she manages to capture the nostalgic glow of this wartime pastoral interlude without softening its hardships or descending into mere sentimentality.
Readers nostalgic for - or simply curious about - daily life in the American West just over a century ago may well enjoy pursuing Our Landlady, a collection of newspaper columns about a small town in the newly admitted state of South Dakota, by L. Frank Baum, who would later give the world the unforgettable tale of Dorothy's adventures in the land of Oz. Baum, a young man from New York who followed Horace Greeley's advice about going West, Baum spent three years (1888-1891) in Aberdeen, S.D., where he contributed a humorous, mildly satirical column to the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer.
Baum's column featured the fictitious character "Mrs. Bilkins," a lively, opinionated, penny-pinching woman who runs a boarding house and cuts every corner she can when it comes to feeding her sometimes hard-up paying customers.
Mrs. Bilkin's decided opinions on a variety of subjects, from droughts, crop failures, and economic fluctuations to suffrage, Prohibition, and politics, exhibit a distinctive blend of naivet, shrewdness, cynicism, and dogged optimism.
Although these journalistic vignettes scarcely rise to the artistic and imaginative heights of his Oz books, they constitute a colorful sampling of Americana and are expertly edited and annotated by Nancy Tystad Koupal in an attractive, illustrated volume.
The 28 stories selected by editor John Sutherland for The Oxford Book of English Love Stories, were chosen in large part for the ways in which they confound conventional expectations. They are, indeed, a far cry from the world of Harlequin romances.
In these love stories, love does not always conquer all, and even when it does, the result is not always the proverbial happy ending. Many of these stories are surprisingly unsentimental and, perhaps even more surprisingly, most are quite unerotic.
Readers who are prepared to forgo the predictable will find stories that brilliantly illuminate many kinds of love: foolish, wise, casual, caring, obsessive, deluded, self-sacrificing, and selfish. Beginning in the late 17th century with a rather colorless tale by the colorful Aphra Nehn, commonly credited as the first Englishwoman to make her living by the pen, the collection skips over the 18th century to proceed chronologically into the 19th and 20th centuries. (Irritatingly, the editor fails to provide the actual dates of the stories' composition or publication, perhaps out of a mistaken belief that to do so invites readers to consider them mere "period pieces.")
Sutherland has done an unusually fine job of finding interesting and relatively unfamiliar works by very famous authors, including Mary Shelly, Anthony Trollope, William Makepeace Thackeray, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Elizabeth Bowen.
It probably says more about the temperament of this particular editor than it does about the English love story in general that most of these stories end unhappily: with noble self-renunciation at best, despair and ruin at worst, and a great deal of betrayal and disillusionment in between.
But there are also shafts of sweetness and light. From Thackeray's daughter, Anne Ritchie, there's a delicate story of devotion narrated by a man unembittered by his disappointment; from Phyllis Bentley, a crisply written account of malice that ends up outsmarting itself.
Although this anthology of love stories may not be a collection to warm the hearts of true romantics, it brings together a fascinating and enlightening variety of perspectives on the harsher realities that may lie in wait for unsuspecting lovers.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.