I read a book review on National Public Radio's (NPR) website and decided it’s one I must add to my reading list. The book is“Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” by Elizabeth von Arnim.
I realized after I Googled her name that she also is the author of another book, “Enchanted April,” which I haven’t read, but saw the movie. It’s a wonderful “chick flick” and now I want to read both books.
And now to NPR’s book review, presented here in its entirety:
by Lauren Groff, author of a new novel, Arcadia.
The darkest period of my life, so far, arrived the summer I was pregnant with my eldest son. The future was growing in me with all of its terrifying unpredictability, and I found myself anxious, unable to work and woefully at sea.
Books, I hoped, would help. Staring into darkness, I wanted to read about happiness; I wanted novels that were full of joy. I asked my friends for suggestions but heard in return only a drawn-out buzz of bafflement. In truth, books about joy are hard to find because happiness is nearly impossible to write about. Narrative thrives on conflict.
And so, late one sleepless night when I stumbled on Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, I felt as if someone had thrust open a curtain and revealed a window where I had assumed only the existence of a wall.
Von Arnim lived her life among writers: The short story author Katherine Mansfield was her cousin; she employed novelists E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole as tutors for her children, and she was the mistress of H.G. Wells. Her milieu was literary, but her first book is urgent and personal: Elizabeth and Her German Garden feels as if it rose out of von Arnim's deep internal discomfort with the way she was supposed to fit into her world.
Still, what a fizzy drink this novel is.
Framed as a series of semi-autobiographical diary entries, the book holds only the slenderest claim to novelhood in any conventional sense — it has very little plot. There are few characters: the narrator, a countess named Elizabeth on her isolated German estate, her three tiny daughters who speak a funny patois of German and English, her chauvinistic husband whom she calls "The Man of Wrath," various buffoonish servants, and some visitors whom Elizabeth gently but thoroughly satirizes.
There is also Elizabeth's great passion, the garden, which we see in its shifting seasonal abundance from cowslips and kingcups to wild strawberries and rockets and azaleas to snowy fir trees.
Under the surface, however, are the narrative's great, hidden depths: Elizabeth's disappointment in the socially circumscribed roles of women, and her husband's overt misogyny (he commends the Russian peasants who come to work in Germany for beating their wives, because it teaches the women their place in the world). But she resists what is expected of her as a countess and wife by throwing her energies into her garden. Her happiness, when it comes, arrives as an act of will. Her delight feels hard-won, and it is dearer for her struggle.
I wrote this essay from my winter garden, where my own babies whacked one another with brown sunflower stalks. I credit Elizabeth for showing me that an act of focused attention can lift a person out of a long, dark spell. And when the blues skulk near these days, I reach for my wry countess. It is impossible to resist a little glow of happiness from living, even for a few pages, in her rapturous company.
The good news is Amazon.com has several von Arnim books free for Kindle so I suppose I’ll just be greedy and get all of them. Among the titles are “The Solitary Summer,” The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight,” “Vera,” “The Pastor’s Wife,” and several others. She was a prolific writer.
And regarding “Enchanted April,” Amazon describes it this way:
“A discrete advertisement in The Times, addressed to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine,’ is the prelude to a revelatory month for four very different women. High above a bay on the Italian Riviera stands the medieval castle San Salvatore. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs. Arbuthnot, Mrs. Fisher, and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the gentle spirit of the Mediterranean, they gradually shed their public skins, discovering a harmony each of them has longed for but none has ever known. First published in 1922, this captivating novel is imbued with the descriptive power and lighthearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnim is renowned.
|The DVD cover for Enchanted April movie. It stars Alfred Molina, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Polly Walter and Josie Lawrence.|
What’s on your reading list? Have you read any good books lately whose titles you would like to share? What are your favorites?