Thursday, May 19, 2016

Reading on a Theme: Literary Women of the Early 20th Century

This post has been a long time in the making, but I truly, truly enjoyed every one of these books. Historical fiction can be such a fun way to learn about real people. In this bunch, we have a group of early twentieth century women who challenged conventions, married famous authors, and wrote great works of literature.

Isak Dinesin:
Circling the Sun is the story of Beryl Markham. Coming of age in Africa after the First World War, Beryl chafes against the constraints of womanhood. Desperate to live an independent life, she becomes the colony's first female horse trainer and enters into a passionate love triangle with Denys Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen, who published Out of Africa as Isak Dinesin. Beryl would publish a book about her time in Africa, as well, West with the Night. Paula McLain transports her readers to another time and place with her lush language and engaging storytelling. I love reading about women who shirk convention, and Beryl is absolutely fascinating.

Hadley Hemingway:
The Paris Wife is the story of Ernest Hemingway's marriage to his first wife Hadley Richardson, as told from Hadley's perspective. The couple participated in the burgeoning Parisian artistic climate of the post-war period. I very much enjoyed reading about both the outrageous and the mundane aspects of the pair's life in Paris, such as hobnobbing with other famous artists while living in squalor. Hadley is a very rich and captivating narrator. In her hands Ernest is an artist with a vigorous and energetic spirit who, although not without his demons and flaws, is clearly a fascinating person. The connection between the two main characters felt honest to me. A fantastic read.

Zelda Fitzgerald:
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is a fictional account of the life of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Zelda Sayre was a seventeen-year-old Southern belle when she met Scott in 1918. Known as the quintessential Jazz Age couple, these two did nothing halfway. Therese Anne Fowler molds their legend into living, breathing individuals. I found Zelda to be a very sympathetic character in Fowler's hands. I think many women can relate to the conflict between Zelda's desire to make something of herself and the expectations placed upon her by family and society. Fowler also does a nice job conveying the Fitzgerald's codependency. The Fitzgerald's really were a mess.

Virginia Woolf:
Vanessa and Her Sister is the story of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and the Bloomsbury Group. The novel begins in 1905 at a time when the Stephen household (Vanessa, Virginia and their brother Thoby and Adrian) is at the center of a group of young and unproved avant-garde writers, artists, and philosophers. Told through letters and journal entries, the novel follows Vanessa, especially, as she falls in love, marries, and deals with her sister's jealousy. I really loved this book. It's one of those books that I've been telling all my real-life friends about. I really enjoyed the letter format and how it gave a very personal quality to the story. Priya Parmar's book had a really nice, quiet feel to it and felt very period appropriate. I would love to read a sequel.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh:
The Aviator's Wife is the story of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh. Anne was an aviator and navigator herself and did much traveling with Charles in the early years of their marriage. Later in life she turned her attention to writing, receiving national acclaim for Gift from the Sea. In the novel, Anne has a strong voice and is a sympathetic character. However, I found myself wishing that Charles could be a more fully formed character. Charles is drawn so unsympathetically that it was hard for me to understand why Anne fell for him in the first place. I really liked learning about the Lindberghs through Melanie Benjamin's historical fiction account. 

All reviews by JoLee.

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