A book review: Villa America – well worth coming to stay

25 May

Villa America front cover

Mumsnet gave me the chance to review Villa America by Liza Klaussmann. I will never turn down a book, ever; but having never read any Liza Klaussmann before (what a mistake!) I didn’t know what I would get from Villa America. What I got was a wonderful surprise. The story of Sara and Gerald Murphy, glamorous 1920 society lynchpins and, as such, hosts to some of the most recognisable names of that era, brought me straight into their world and pinned me there, rapt, unable to put the novel down.

All main characters bar one (pilot Owen Chambers) in the novel are real people. In the case of people like F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, they are people who I have studied before in the context of the work they produced. It is fascinating therefore to read what might have fleshed out those factual bones; Klaussmann has clearly done a huge amount of research, and therefore the way she writes to fill in the gaps feels perfectly believable, no character’s personification jarring with what we know about them from history, and the dialogue, thoughts and motivations as written by Klaussmann, perfectly believable.

Villa America is a multi-faceted, tremendously colourful tale. We learn about the central characters, Sara and Gerald Murphy, from their earliest lives. Both have characters shaped by unhappy and dysfunctional childhoods; they are childhood friends, not sweethearts, who are reunited after several years and recognise within each other kindred spirits, a shock of realisation that turns into love. They are united in their determination to give each other, and their children, the upbringing that neither of them had. The letters between the two when they first realise that they are destined to be together, and those talking about their first child, Honoria, are realistic and touching.

Their relationship throughout the book and their individual personalities, thoughts and feelings are written sensitively and with great care; as a result, I was able to believe that Gerald could fall passionately in love with someone else while remaining absolutely committed to his marriage and the idyll that he and Sara had created as a result of it. A writer less skilled than Klaussmann would not be able to carry this off, and the careful writing of Sara and Gerald’s relationship is one of the continuously strong and enjoyable threads within the novel.

The reader knows from the very start that the paradise described throughout most of the novel is only temporary. This skillful techique colours reading of the apparently carefree and hedonistic lifestyle at Villa America – as the reader, you know that it is not going to last, unlike the main characters, who for a significant proportion of the novel believe that it will, and viewing it from this position of knowledge gives the story right from the beginning a poignancy that it would not otherwise have. It prevents the characters’ most hedonistic and selfish actions rendering them dislikable, as the reader knows that ‘paradise will be lost’ right from the start. Read from this position of full knowledge, scenes featuring the children and Gerald and Sara’s careful construction of the perfect world for them – even down to Sara’s absolute terror of germs, and the precautions she takes to combat them, which are naive and, ultimately, tragic – are particularly moving. The inexorable movement towards the collapse of the status quo which they have all, to a greater or lesser extent, taken for granted, which we know cannot last, since history tells us so, is also foreshadowed by the excellent writing of Owen Chambers’ experience as a pilot in the First World War, and the vivid description of a fellow aviator’s fiery death. Klaussmann doesn’t shy away from the truth of the 1920s and the horrific events of the war which ushered it in; she writes Chambers’ war experience as believably as the rest of it, and we share in and believe Owen Chambers’ defining life experiences just as we share in and believe the quieter, more personal traumas that have defined the Murphys.

I wasn’t certain how a novel featuring through it a progression of people as well-known as Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway would work without sounding at least unbelievable and at worst unbelievable and pretentious. We know the Murphys were ‘in real life’ hosts to these people; their relationships are written aside from the work for which they are renowned, and as a result, we believe in the day-to-day lives that Klaussmann writes for them. Zelda Fitzgerald’s depression, her reckless acts as a result of it, and the catastrophic effect of alcohol on her relationship with her husband Scott, but their inability to leave their hedonistic and damaging lifestyle behind were particularly memorable for me.

Villa America pulls the reader into the 1920s and the Murphys’ lives, and doesn’t let you go. When I put the book down, I continued to think about it; finishing it feels like a loss somehow. I would thoroughly recommend it. A proper must-read.

I don’t want to go swimming

2 May

  L2 has moved into the Big Pool at long last. He is a child whose perception of his swimming ability leapfrogs his actual swimming ability, so this has been a long time coming.

His new lesson necessitates a mad dash to the pool after school, which is hectic but overall makes the evening more civilised. When we first got to the pool at the new time, it was almost completely empty. Sitting safely in the bleachers comfy and non-wet, the sun streaming in and a virtually unsullied water surface beneath me, I felt a romantic surge of desire to be in that water. Turning to L1 I said “We should definitely swim next week.”

Oh, how foolish, how short-sighted of me. This statement constituted a promise, and forces me to uncover one of my darkest parental secrets: I don’t like going swimming.

Actually, this is not strictly true. Swimming in certain circumstances – abroad in the near-Tropics, for instance; in a spa; on a hotel rooftop; in the sea (with or without waves), that sort of thing – these are all more than fine. My dislike of swimming in leisure centres in the UK started with general distaste for the changing rooms – squelchy mush from what on earth between the toes; discarded hairbands and discarded actual hair; plasters with something yellow on them entrapping you at every turn; the faint but omni-present tang of urine – and moved on to the whole general experience – the fact that it is always much colder than you expect; the difference in temperature between the very top surface and anywhere beneath; those drains in the side of the pool and even worse those drains at the bottom; the fact you don’t know what is in the trough beneath the poolside and you have to put a foot in there to get out – honestly the list goes on and on and on.

Yet I don’t feel it would be wise to share this distaste with my offspring. Already prone to squeamishness around items and events that I dismiss as over-pampered, I can hardly share this one with them, especially as I believe swimming is a crucial skill to master and most importantly because they love it. 

The odd involuntary exclamation of horror has escaped my lips in a swimming pool while in their presence – when I saw the cockroach, for instance, and his semi-decapitated friend; and when the smell of wee was identified as actual wee in our cubicle –  and I do urge speed in the changing rooms at all cost (but I disguise that effectively beneath a veneer of concern regarding over-zealous traffic wardens). But mostly I have to grit my teeth, get a grip and use the medium of this blog as therapy. 

Eat everything*

10 Apr

 

 On Tuesday I made a meal so disgusting that it could only be defined as left-overs from the start. It never attained the dizzy heights of being referred to as an actual current meal. At the first bite it was designated ‘something Daddy might like to try'; then swiftly downgraded to ‘the flavours might improve after a night in the fridge'; before plummeting unceremoniously to ‘let’s just put this in the bin’. I hate wasting food, so this is a dramatic and unprecedented decision which can only demonstrate how unpalatable the recipe in question – or at least, my interpretation thereof – was.

Although I can’t believe that substituting dried basil for fresh would have made such a sweeping 360-degree change as to make it something that normal people could actually eat. 

It got me thinking though about some of the unpleasant things I have made and / or sampled in the name of ‘why on earth not’. Even after having children I have never felt especially constrained by what ought in the name of all that’s holy go together in a culinary venture vs what should never be even loosely coupled. The kids stoically tolerate my cooking – L2, infamously and with my ongoing apologies to his first childminder – was initially post-weaning fed almost exclusively on quinoa (quinoa-with-x, ‘x’ being whatever seemed a nutritious ideal rather than a natural quinoa partner) which I can’t pronounce but was so fascinated that he actually ate that I was continually using to check he still did. 

It goes further back, too. There was the incident of the now infamous ‘water chestnut surprise’ – the ‘surprise’ of the title being that water chestnuts could ever be considered within a bolognaise sauce. And even more dim and distant, the dinner party I hosted just before my gap year travels began, when I flung entire sweetcorn (baby, ok, not full-size, my optimism has some boundaries) straight into a frying pan for a stir fry and wondered how on earth they were still one step less than al dente basically, ever.

Hope here is two-fold. Firstly M loves to cook – otherwise no-one could ever come round here to eat, ever. And secondly I am developing reserves of patience – or at least, now bothering to mine them – and will accept that a recipe is there for a reason. Just not that particular Koh Samui Thai salad recipe…

*almost

How to fall over

26 Feb

After Madonna’s Brits tumble last night, falling over has shot to the top of the news agenda. It has never been more important to fall over well. As a perennial faller-over-er (less so since my back was fixed, but still an issue thanks to my numb lower leg), I have some tips for anyone finding themselves in that position (flat).

1) Be indiscriminate. I am just as capable of falling over and doing hospital-requiring damage on a flat surface (Tarmac) as I am on a sloping surface (stairs). I can look at this in one of two ways: I am fair in my falling; or every location presents equal danger. The view I take depends on how recently I have fallen.

2) Distract from the fall by returning to the previous upright state with alacrity. Madonna modelled this perfectly last night, springing up with a nonchalant ‘nothing to see here’ approach which exemplified this rule. Even after years of falling as an adult, I can still admire such an approach and salute it. An example to all of us for whom vertical is difficult.

3) During the fall, plan a trick so eye-catching that the fall becomes secondary to what is achieved as a result. Difficult, but master-able. In an era now past, I could fall down a flight of stairs and not spill a drop from my wine glass. That used to elicit gasps of astonishment and effectively distract from the fact that stairway top to bottom was undertaken in the blink of an eye not the usual progress of seconds.

4) Try not to become addicted to exercise that requires a lot of staying-upright. I have failed resoundingly on this one with my year-old walking fetish but there is no denying that since starting walking regularly I have found more kerbs with my trailing right foot than ever before. While this is simply because I encounter more of the pesky pavement-breakers than I did previously – and have no intention of quitting walking for macrame – it has increased the instance of a slight or significant stumble exponentially (especially with my dodgy knee).

5) Consider your clothing. I won’t even go there with heels, other than to say I love them, I wear them, I’m an adult, I accept the risks. Here I mean actual clothing. Trailing pieces are right out (in retrospect I shudder at the potential for calamity presented by my wedding dress, but hey ho, it, I, and our guests are all still here). But – as poor Madonna found last night – apparently straightforward elements of a garment all have a part to play. I particularly watch my sleeves; these catch on door frames throughout the house, jerking me violently backwards (my mantra – why walk unless it’s purposeful? – applies even in the home) and sending me floor-wards in one seamless movement.

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Life begins…

25 Feb

This is a post that I have been putting off for ages, because it is regarding a subject that I am not dealing with well. My lack of desire to confront this particular pachyderm in the property means that it was (until inspired by Madonna’s fall!) many weeks since last I put thumb to touchscreen, suffering in silence from a refusal to man up (awful phrase – but addressing why it is an awful phrase is not a subject for now) to this one.

In a handful of days time I will be celebrating my 21st birthday.

Again.

The eagle eyed will note that I am still failing to confront actual reality, but this is as far as it goes.

I can’t put a touchscreen-avoiding finger on why it matters. After all, it is inevitable. There is a grace about growing older without complaint which I would like to model and indeed growing older is a gift. Many many people I know well – my own husband for starters – have effectively navigated the rocky shores of this particular decade’s demise (or should
I say, a new decade’s dawning – the glass half full interpretation) with nothing like this amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth (yup, these teeth are mainly still all my own, I am proud to announce).

And my last milestone birthday (18, of course, from my current unrealistic age acknowledging) passed in a blur of new-ish baby-ness and massive work-ness, so it will be nice to tackle this one with an active awareness and deliberate enjoyment.

I need to draw upon my reserves of optimism and ‘get over yourself’-ness and confront it head on. There is no conclusion nor solution to this, which makes acceptance necessary. So here goes.

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Life rafts

21 Nov

Today I am travelling North. This fact alone explains how eager I am for this meeting to which I am moving, since I have what could be described as a ‘Southern bias’.

I am travelling to spend the weekend with five people who collectively proved to be one of the most positive influences I have ever had on my life. Geography, circumstance and conflicting demands on time mean we never meet as often as would be amazing; and I think it has been eight years since I saw two of them. But when you have been grey-eyed and teary, with everything on your anatomy hurting and leaking, unable to get out of the house before 2.30pm and even then when you do make it out forgetting everything you had to bring with you, and you have then spent quality empathic and entertaining time with people, welcomed and unjudged (and with nappies you can borrow to make up for those you forgot!) that equates to friends for life for me. Eight years will mean nothing.

These five are friends I made ten years ago through the National Childbirth Trust in East London. We had babies within an eight week period, and first met just as spring was risking an entrance, in late April. Following L1’s ‘fascinating’ birth, the end of my lengthy hospital incarceration and self-inflicted troubles such as ‘not being able to get up from the floor when you get down there to play with your baby when on your own in the house'; with M back to work for weeks, and family and friends being amazingly, blessedly supportive but also at work during the week, I was incredibly lonely and incredibly overwhelmed by that period of time, my best of times and my worst of times.

My NCT membership was my life raft in the storm, my promise of people in the same area and same situation to spend time with. I was so desperate for those afternoon meet-ups to start that I phoned the convenor rather than waiting to be phoned; I didn’t say ‘I NEED FRIENDS’ explicitly but I may as well have done.

That first afternoon we met, swapping ‘war stories’ and finding out others too were permanently changed by the process of birth, feeding was tricky, sleep nonexistent and being overwhelmed by tears in Tesco Express quite normal, I felt my horizons open up once again. Here were people who needed to talk about babies and birth just as much as I did.

It was this group, during coffee in a Walthamstow deli, who helped me overcome my terrible fear of L1 choking on solid food, stood by me while I fed her a rice cake, and saved her from a lifetime of monotonous puree, which had I been left to my own neurotic devices would have been the way things went.

And as time passed and we became more capable and adventurous, they were fantastic companions for day-time (and later, memorably, minus-offspring night-time) adventures and for the unique challenges of taking the next step, whatever that ended up being, about returning to work.

So I am travelling to Manchester, excited and grateful, both for these friends in my life and for the work the NCT has done. They acknowledge and understand the universality of those first weeks of motherhood, when perversely I (and countless others) have never felt more isolated and alone, and taken great strides in doing something about it.

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How not to pack, but be happy

24 Oct

On Tuesday I abandoned all pretence at capsule wardrobe packing. I hefted the massive suitcase and the slightly smaller massive suitcase out from under the bed, took the ‘carry on Samsonite’ (not a lesser-known episode of the Carry On oeuvre, but our trusty in-cabin everything bag for any flights) out for good measure, and got laundering and cramming.

I have been away on numerous holidays where I have spent an age poring over women’s magazine’s ‘capsule’ wardrobe articles, then attempted to replicate them in my own suitcase. But inevitably something ends up missing from the magazine’s double page spread on the ‘only five items you need for a week in Belgrade’. Something quite crucial, like trousers, or a cardigan.

Once to be fair I did follow these instructions to the letter, and travelled without any trousers packed, but that is more a cautionary tale about why it isn’t wise to pack after a massive work night out than an attempt to encapsulate the elegantly streamlined accounts-for-all-eventualities packing that I imagine Amal Clooney to be a master at.

So for this upcoming week – the tour named #FrozenNorth2014 – I have made sure that every eventuality is covered, for me and for the Ls. Short sleeved, long sleeved, warm, furry, waterproof, thin trousers, sturdy trousers – just not ‘no trousers’. M is old enough to plough his own packing furrow, although that doesn’t mean I don’t cast a critical eye on his attempts, naturally.

Apologies to those with whom we come to stay, but at least we won’t be caught short if we unexpectedly need to dress to impress, eh.

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