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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-11-21 16:38
The Tulip Tree - Voices from the past, but little else
The Tulip Tree - Howard Rigsby

Spoilers throughout.  Trigger warnings for gruesome violence mentioned and one animal death.

 

Disclosure:  I'm not sure how I acquired this book, but the paperback edition as pictured was in a large box of gothic romances stored in my workshop.  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with him about this book or any other matter.  I am an author of romantic fiction.

 

As I suspected from the beginning, this is a novel I first read probably a half century or more ago, either as a book club edition or a Reader's Digest Condensed version.  The more I read of it, the more I remembered from that initial reading, though I did not recall the ending at all.  That may have been what kept me reading through to the end.

 

I rated it only 1.5 stars for a number of reasons, and I can't say I would recommend it to other readers.  It's not a bad book, but neither is it a particularly good one. 

 

And it's definitely not a gothic romance.

 

Plot, such as it is: Thirty-year-old Kimball Watts is an editor for a New York publishing house.  He and his wife Josephine have two small daughters.  Jo's adoptive parents have recently died and she has inherited their estate, a small farm in upstate New York.  With the cash proceeds from the sale of the farm, Jo and Kim purchase an old house just over the state line in New Jersey.  Kim commutes to Manhattan; Jo stays at home with the two girls.

 

The house is huge -- they aren't even sure just how many rooms it has -- and consists of two smaller pre-Revolution houses joined by a later 19th century central structure.  There's also a barn and some acreage.  The house is in some disrepair but more or less livable.

 

There are few neighbors.  The Stauffers -- George, Helen, their son Bert, and George's parents -- struck me at first as being just too weird, but they're actually "normal," by whatever standards.  They have a live-in maid, Verna, who is about 16 and is an orphan from the local Catholic girls' home.

 

Clarissa Cutler lives next door to the Wattses with her husband and two young children.  Clarissa is an albino African American; both of the children are also albinos.  Her husband Vincent is a handsome black man.

 

A few miles away there are some other neighbors who live in a small cluster of old cabins, apparently without running water or electricity or . . . anything.  They are the descendants of servants and other retainers of the huge and vacant estate across the road from the Wattses.  Among them is Benji Potter, the elderly and somewhat mysterious black man who has attached himself to the Watts home as caretaker and guardian.

 

Though written in third person, this is almost entirely Kim Watts's story.  He likes the house and wants to stay there, but Jo is superstitious and wants out.  Legally, though I'm not sure why, the house belongs to her.  Kim goes through some financial negotiations to acquire the house as community property, but that doesn't seem to help Jo accept the house.

 

Eventually Kim learns about the house's history when a weird elderly lady -- I don't even remember her name now or her connection to the house -- stops by one night unannounced and tells him about it.  There are settler massacres by Native Americans, rapes and murders and mutilations of enslaved people, family murders, and so on.  Kim tells Jo none of this.

 

But Jo just can't deal with her superstitious fear of the house, so she packs up and leaves.  Kim doesn't know what to do.

 

And then they all lived happily ever after.

 

Say, what?

 

Well, that's how the ending felt to me.  There was no build up for the way everything was resolved.  It wasn't as though a whole bunch of puzzle pieces slowly, inexorably, and logically fell into place.  Instead, the various characters did things that as a reader I expected would have some significant impact and move the story along in a specific direction, but they really didn't.

 

Spoilers ahead.

 

Clarissa is beautiful, but weird.  She wears weird clothes, wanders around outdoors in the middle of the night in diaphanous gowns and a long blonde wig.  She drives her Pontiac convertible like a bat out of hell.  Her midnight rambles are described in such a way that you think they must have some significance.  They don't.  Is she spying on the Wattses?  Is she trying to seduce Kim?  Maybe yes to both, but neither is made clear.  Is she trying to scare them out of the house?  Maybe that, too, but again it's all vague and just weird.

 

What about George Stauffer's parents?  His mother is a harridan, complaining, dominating all conversation with her rants, just a horrible person.  The father is apparently an alcoholic, since he's restricted to ginger ale while everyone else has cocktails and wine.  Are her harangues supposed to illustrate how out of touch with the middle of the 20th century she is?  Is she supposed to provide a contrast to Kim's more contemporary view of life and the world?  I don't know, because Kim doesn't really react.

 

In fact, Kim never really grows through the whole story.  There's a hint of his having had to deal with his own experience of racism and some confrontation with his guilt over his inaction, but I never saw any change in him as a result. 

 

In fact, the only character who does change is Jo, and there's never any explanation for how or why she changed.  She just . . . does.  There's never any explanation for why she was so superstitious or why she took all these little omens so seriously.  I see omens in everything, too, but I don't take them seriously.  Why did she?  And why did she stop?

 

What I realized when I finished the book last night was that none of the characters had any depth.  They were almost caricatures, set on the stage of The Spooky Old House with a Tragic Past, and then once the story of the spooky house had been told, it was all over.  The millionaire who owned the property across the road sold out to a developer and the 20th century was being rudely imposed on all the history and spookiness.  The End.

 

The writing is fine, with a lot of description of the weather and the scenery and the moods, but the structure and characterization were flawed.  And it's too late to fix it.

 

 

 

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text 2018-11-11 19:15
Not a formal status report, but . . . . .
The Tulip Tree - Howard Rigsby

I knew I wouldn't be able to stay up and read very long because I was really, really tired when I went to bed.  I did, however, want to start this book.

 

There's no question that this is a gothic romance.  The publisher put it right on the cover!  It's compared to Du Maurier's classic Rebecca. The artwork is almost typical gothic, with the spooky house and single lighted window.  The young woman, however, is in close-up portrait rather than full-length with windblown hair and gown.

 

And the author is male.

 

There are also quotes from a number of reviews published in real newspapers.  Hmmmmmm.  Gothic romances did not get reviewed in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the 1960s.

 

I only read 12 pages, not quite the first whole chapter, before I just couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, but that was enough to confirm my suspicions that I had read this book before, decades ago.  One small incident ticked my memory, something I would not have consciously remembered but that came back to me the instant I read it. 

 

There were only two ways I could have read this book in the 1960s.  It was either condensed by Reader's Digest, or it was a Doubleday Book Club selection.  My parents subscribed to both for a number of years at that time.  I read the condensed version of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop as well as his later novel, Ocean Front, though I don't know if that was book club or condensed.  I do remember the cover, however, so maybe it was a book club edition.  I also read two other book club offerings, The Daughter of the Pangaran and Summer Doctor.  I remember details of both those books, and they were published about the same time as The Tulip Tree, so I'm more comfortable guessing I read a book club edition.

 

So in 1963, a gothic romance written by a man would be published in hardcover by Doubleday and be reviewed numerous newspapers, be selected for their subscription book club, and later be republished in paperback.  No doubt Howard Rigsby earned a great deal more for his gothic romance novel than most of the women writing paperback gothics.

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text 2018-11-11 00:04
The Tulip Tree -- a voice from the past?? Maybe.
The Tulip Tree - Howard Rigsby

This is one of the books from the hoard of gothics in the workshop.  Though my (battered) paperback copy was published in 1970, the original Doubleday hardcover was published in 1963.  I think I may have read this, perhaps in a Reader's Digest Condensed version or possibly as a Doubleday Book Club selection my dad had.

 

So I may just keep this one out for a day or so and read it in bed at night, if I'm not too tired.

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review 2018-10-31 12:36
A beautiful, contemplative, and touching novel about what it means to be whole
House of Glass - Susan Fletcher

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book. I was later contacted by Kimberley Nyamhondera suggesting I take part in the blog tour for the launch of the book, and as I knew the author I immediately agreed.

I had read and reviewed another one of Susan Fletcher’s books (Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, you can read my review here) a couple of years ago and loved it. When I checked my review, to remind myself what I had thought about it in more detail, I realised I could use almost word by word the same title for my review, although the subject of the novel is quite different. “A beautiful, contemplative, and touching novel.” Yes, this definitely applies to House of Glass as well. This time the story is set in the UK right before the breaking of the First World War, and in fact, there are rumours spreading about its likelihood already when the novel starts. It is a fascinating time, and the life of the protagonist, Clara Waterfield, is deeply affected by the historical period she has to live in, from her birth in very late Victorian times, to what would be a very changed world after the Great War, with the social upheaval, the rapid spread of industrialization, the changing role of women, and the all-too-brief peace.

Clara, who tells the story in the first person, is a great creation, who becomes dearer and dearer to us as we read the book. This is not a novel about a protagonist who is fully-formed, recognisable and unchanging, and runs across the pages from one action scene to the next hardly pausing to take a breather. Clara reflects upon her past (although she is very young, she has suffered greatly, but not lived much), her condition (she suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, brittle bones, and that meant that she was kept indoors and not exposed to the risks and dangers of the outside world, the London streets in her case throughout her childhood), her family, and life experiences or her lack of them. No matter what she looks like, her short stature, her difficulty walking, her limitations in physical activity, this is a determined woman, make no mistake. She has learned most of what she knows through books (non-fiction mostly, although she enjoyed the Indian tales her mother used to read her), she has experienced not only pain, but other kinds of loses, and there are secrets and mysteries surrounding her, but despite all that, she is all practical and logical when we meet her. Her lack of exposure to the real world makes her a fascinating narrator, one who looks at everything with the eyes of a new-born or an alien suddenly landed in our society, who might have theoretical knowledge but knows nothing of how things truly work, while her personality, determined and stubborn, and her enquiring nature make her perfect to probe into the mystery at the heart of Shadowbrook.

Readers might not find Clara particularly warm and engaging to begin with (despite the sympathy they might feel for her suffering, something she would hate), as she dispenses with the niceties of the period, is headstrong and can be seen as rude and unsympathetic. At some point, I wondered if there might have been more to her peculiar personality than the way she was brought up (she can be obsessive with the things she likes, as proven by her continuous visits to Kew Gardens once she discovers them, and her lack of understanding of social mores and her difficulty in reading people’s motivations and feelings seemed extreme), but she quickly adapts to the new environment, she thrives on change and challenges, she shows a great, if somewhat twisted, sense of humour at times, and she evolves and grows into her own self during the novel, so please, readers, stick with the book even if you don’t connect with her straightaway or find her weird and annoying at times.  It will be worth your while.

Her point of view might be peculiar, but Clara is a great observer of people and of the natural world. She loves her work and she is careful and meticulous, feeling an affinity for the exotic plants of the glass house, that, like her until recently, also have to live enclosed in an artificial environment for their own safety. That is partly what enhances their beauty and their rarity in our eyes. By contrast, Clara knows that she is seen as weird, lacking, less-able, and hates it. She is a deep thinker and reflects upon what she sees, other people’s behaviours, she imagines what others might be talking about, and dreams of her dead mother and soon also of the mystery behind the strange happenings at the house.

The novel has been described as gothic, and that is a very apt description, even though it is not always dark and claustrophobic. There are plenty of scenes that take place in the garden, in the fields, and in the open air, but we do have the required strange happenings, creaks and noises, scratches on doors, objects and flowers behaving in unpredictable fashion, previous owners of the house with a troublesome and tragic past, a mysterious current owner who hides something, violence, murder, and plenty of rumours. We have a priest who is conflicted by something, a loyal gardener who knows more than he says, a neighbouring farmer who has plenty of skeletons in his closet, and a housekeeper who can’t sleep and is terrified. But there is much more to the novel than the usual tropes we have come to expect and love in the genre. There is social commentary; there are issues of diversity and physical disability, discussions about religious belief and spirituality, and also about mental health, women’s rights, and the destructive nature of rumours and gossip, and some others that I won’t go into to avoid spoilers.

I don’t want to give anything away, and although the story moves at a steady and contemplative pace, this in no way makes it less gripping. If anything, the beauty of the language and the slow build up work in its favour, giving us a chance to get fully immersed in the mood and the atmosphere of the place.

I marked a lot of passages, and I don’t think any of them make it full justice, but I’ve decided to share some, nonetheless:

She’d also said that there was no human perfection; that if the flaw could not be seen physically, then the person carried it inside them, which made it far worse, and I’d believed this part, at least.

For my mother had never spoken well of the Church. Patrick had said nothing at all of it. And my own understanding had been that imperfect bodies were forms of godly punishment; that imperfect meant I was worth less somehow. I’d disliked this notion intensely. Also, I was not a spare rib.

I could not taste fruit from studying a sketch of it, cut in half. What use was only reading of acts and not doing them? Knowing the route of the Ganges was not the same as standing in it.

 

The ending… We find the solution to the mystery, (which I enjoyed, and at the time I wondered why the book did not finish at that point) but the novel does not end there, and we get to hear what happened in the aftermath of the story. And yes, although at first, I wasn’t sure that part was necessary, by the end of the book proper I was crying and felt as if I was leaving a close friend in Clara, one that I was convinced would go on to lead a happy life.

Another fantastic novel by Susan Fletcher, one I recommend to fans of gothic novels, of Daphne du  Maurier’s Rebecca and her other novels, of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, and of inspiringly gorgeous writing. I do not recommend it to readers who prefer an action-laden plot with little space for thought or reflexion, although why not check a sample of the book and see for yourselves? I must catch up on the rest of the author’s novels and I hope there will be many more to come.

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review 2018-10-29 20:14
Lukewarm Rebecca
Bride of Pendorric - Victoria Holt

I think that some of you Gothic lovers out there will love this one. I did not love this or even like it much. This took me ages to get through. It had so many characters and just a lot of information dumps here and there that didn't work for me. Also the main character, Favel (yes that's her name) was uber frustrating since she just tra la las during most of this book though she believes someone is out to kill her.

 

"Bride of Pendorric" is about a young woman who marries a random guy (Roc Pendorric) that shows up to her father's studio to buy some paintings. Favel and her father live somewhere off the coast of Italy getting by with him selling his art after the death of her mother.

 

The beginning of this book reminded me a bit of the beginning of "Rebecca". You don't really get why the main character is so obsessed with the man she comes to contact with (Roc in this case instead of Max de Winter). Roc is painted as a gambler, just like Favel's father, and so I was puzzled why she would even consent to marry this guy. He doesn't seem charming at all just tall and dark. This being a Gothic book though, Favel and Roc do marry and then her father mysteriously dies while swimming (after going off with Roc). Favel and Roc eventually return to England to live specifically in Cornwall, where Pendorric stands. 

 

The subject of twins comes up a lot in this one. Roc is a twin, his sister Morwenna still lives at Pendorric with her husband Charles and their twin daughters Hyson and Lowella. And of course Roc's dead mother was a twin. We find out through other characters about Roc's father and what a philander he was (man cheated with everyone it seemed that lived nearby) and Favel starts to worry that the man she knew for like a month may be similar to his father. Good job caring about these things now. There are mysterious neighbors, relatives, a governess and a nurse. I can't say much about these characters besides to say that they were all just a bit too bland and underdeveloped. I still didn't like Roc through the majority of this book. 

 

There are way too many twists in this book to even make sense of most of them. The flow was awful too.


I usually like the Cornwall setting, but besides hearing about the moor here and there, no place stood out. I think Holt hoped that Pendorric would be up there as much a famous house like Manderley or even Shirley Jackson's Hill House. It just didn't live up to that for me.


The ending gives you an information dump via a diary that just happened to be there for Favel to read and know all. I just laughed. Reminded me of Holt's "The Secret Woman" where all is revealed via a letter. 

 

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