Caveat: I don’t read much fiction any more. A new Louise Penny mystery or Carl Hiaason Florida caper will inevitably make it quickly to the top of the pile, otherwise there’s just too much poetry…too many biographies…and history, politics, and science books…and memoirs and creative non-fiction to read before a novel gets anywhere near the teetering top. But, when a dear friend and gushing Elizabeth Bowen scholar recommended To the North to me, I made an exception.
Every morning for about three months I read a half-dozen pages in Bowen’s novel, sniffing for the greatness my friend attributed to the 1932 Bloomsbury-era book (this despite my distaste for Bowen’s even more widely acclaimed contemporary, Virginia Wolff, whom I was forced to read in a grad school course).
Bowen’s story of two sisters-in-law (one a widow, one maiden) negotiating parallel romances was, in a word, boring. At many turns, it’s insufferable. The cast of characters is a collection of fussy, insular, brittle people living lives of “dolorous hesitation,” “raging boredom,” and “tremendous incuriosity.” I didn’t care a jot about any of them.
But I grit my teeth and soldiered on for some ninety days buoyed only by Bowen’s crystalline, sometimes stunning prose—character descriptions, ladies’ fashions and the pastoral English settings in particular. Thus we see male protagonist Markie: “His eyes in a kind of extinction, blank of their evidence of an intelligence ravenous and satirical, fixed a shimmering point in the black-and-white vestibule tiles: passers-by stepped knee-deep into their cold light.”
Despite such sparkling prose, I ended up like the simpering maiden Emmeline character of the silver dress: in a “stupor beyond impatience,” all the way to the improbable melodramatic ending so out of keeping with the painfully stiff and studied machinations of the preceding three hundred pages.
Exquisite stylist that she was, Bowen doesn’t hold up these ninety years later, not in this book. Bowen’s biography? Now that’s a tome I could stomach.
If you’re a glutton for punishment or need a sure-fire soporific, you can buy the book at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1400096553/ref=cm_sw_r_em_apa_glt_fabc_QA7685QJY0XXBKCVRE49