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Reflections: Stocking up on books for a pandemic

I have always agreed with Emily Dickinson that “There is no frigate like a book/To take us lands away,” but in the early days of coronavirus I needed a faster mode of transportation, something more like the high-speed hydroplane. So when I stocked up from the library just before it closed, I didn’t head for “War and Peace.” Instead, I chose three books from the new-books shelves whose inside jacket blurbs met the criteria for my escape transport: intrigue and romance set in an isolated old house with secrets of its own.

Maybe it started with “Wuthering Heights,” this fascination with big, old houses—preferably British—that hold romance and suspense. I have a picture in my head of a large, dark, mysterious house set high on the moors. As wild as the house is its inhabitant Heathcliffe—a brooding man, whose anger and love are of an unnatural intensity. A climactic scene occurs at an open window.

The first book on the hydroplane was “A Bookshop on the Shore” in which a young, single mom leaves a cramped London apartment to take a job running a mobile bookshop while being an au pair to a widower’s three children, all of whom have been suspended from school. The house, in the Scottish Highlands, is a tumbling-down castle that overlooks Loch Ness. Her employer is a quirky man, more aloof than intense, who sells rare books out of his library. The mother is “gone” and rumors abound as to what actually happened to her. I loved the setting and the main character, and while there was no real mystery, it was a pleasant read.

Since “The Woman in Cabin 10,” I have liked Ruth Ware’s novels of fast-paced suspense and psychologically complex characters. “The Turn of the Key” did not disappoint. The manor in this book is old, isolated, and mysterious, complete with a poisonous garden installed by the previous owner. It has been somewhat remodeled and retrofitted as a smart house; everything is controlled remotely—cameras, lights, communication. Everything except perhaps the ghosts. A young woman becomes a nanny to three girls and is left alone in the house for a few days with the children. We know right from the outset that the nanny is telling the story from jail, awaiting trial for murder. As with Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” we don’t know whether to believe the nanny or the children. Throw in a handsome handyman who’s either trying to help or setting her up. Add an open window, several twists, and a surprising ending.

“The Other Mrs.,” by Mary Kubica, is set on an island off the coast of Maine. The house is a large farmhouse, and despite its pleasant appearance, the house holds a dark secret. Will has inherited the house from his sister, and with the house comes his brooding, surly, teenage niece. Will’s wife, Sadie, is a doctor, and they have two sons. Moving to Maine was supposed to be a fresh start from the past, whose secrets unravel slowly. There is tension in the family between the boys and Sadie, mostly because of things they say she did but that she doesn’t remember. And Sadie suspects her husband was having an affair back in Chicago. The point of view shifts to Camille, the woman with whom Will was having an affair and who has followed him to Maine. Oh, and there’s a murder. Maybe I should have seen the ending coming, but I was totally floored. Not that it didn’t make sense; it was just that I had no idea.

After a few more weeks, the situation was looking more and more like a frigate journey after all. I’m a big fan of Dickens and other Victorian novelists, so I decided I would read George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” which I had often seen mentioned as “one of the greatest novels ever.” Besides keeping me occupied for a long time, it would assuage my guilt at being an ex-English teacher who never read this masterpiece. And I figured it would have at least one of those old houses in the English countryside. A friend lent her copy, a slightly oversized, 799-page hardcover. In fact it was the heft of the book that gave me as much difficulty as its contents. My thumbs were so sore from weeding that holding the book was often physically painful.

As anticipated, I liked the setting, with its several old manors, and there was romance and mild intrigue. The book teems with varied characters, all interconnected, and I watched each one make choices and then have to come to terms with the results. The problem was by the time I got to the resolution, it had been a few hundred pages since the problem, and I had forgotten exactly what it was. I must admit, I felt little admiration or compassion for any of the characters. It was all very serious, and though realistic, I found all the yielding of idealism to resignation very dispiriting. There were few instances of a character being rewarded for arriving at greater self-awareness. And “George” assumed I knew about the political situation of the time and all the contemporary references. I didn’t.

I pride myself on being a good reader and was humiliated on every other page when there was a sentence I had to read three times and still didn’t get. And usually it mattered—was that a “yes” or a “no” to marriage? Did he just admit or deny he lied? Of course there were some very moving lines and profound psychological insights, but they didn’t outweigh—literally—the endless complexities. Maybe I’ve already read too much about the sorrows that result from women caring too much what society thinks and having to be submissive to men. Or maybe “Middlemarch” is another of those things I’m too old for. I liked the book more upon reflection than I did while actually reading it. I was glad to disembark.

Now I need something in-between the fast escape of a hydro and the laborious intensity of a frigate. Under other circumstances I’d say the pace of a cruise ship would be about right, but I’m not extending that metaphor.

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