Sunday, 3 February 2013

Love, tragedy, hope... and a cup of tea...


I want to give a summary of our book club discussion and talk about Vincent Lam’s novel on this cold winter day as I enjoy a hot cup of chai tea.

I was a bit nervous going into my meeting on Friday with my book club ladies, due to the somewhat racy sexual content of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  But we hardly discussed these scenes at all, which I found really refreshing.  Most of my ladies had never read this book before, but all knew about it (who hasn’t?!).  In case anyone doesn’t know what the novel is about, here’s a very short summary.  Clifford and Connie, both members of the upper-class, marry during WWI.  They have a brief time together, then Clifford goes off to fight in the war, and is returned home in a wheelchair.  Connie and Clifford live at Wragby Hall, where they entertain others from their social class.  Clifford begins to write stories, and Connie is his main caregiver.  This goes on for a few years, but Connie becomes restless living a life only of the mind.  She yearns to live the life of the body.  She meets Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper who lives in a hut in the woods at Wragby, and they develop a sexual relationship.  Connie and Mellors fall in love and try to figure a way to live together, which is challenging since each of them is already married, although both are unhappy in their marriages. Their struggles and plans make up the last third of the novel, which offers no clear solutions but which demonstrate the real desire for both parties to live together as fully and happily as possible.  The sexual content, for which this book is so famous, made up such a small amount of the book that, while it was an important aspect,  so many other issues and aspects of the novel were also explored that  my ladies were surprised at the attention the sexual content commanded at the time of publication and even decades beyond.  We discussed the historical aspects of the book, the description of the colliers and their situation in relation to the owners of the coal mines, the fact that their families had to fight for compensation if a husband or father was killed in a mining accident, the way work in the coal mines sucked the life right out of the workers, and how the mine owners practically owned the workers.  One member brought up similarities between this novel and the popular British drama “Downton Abbey”.  She suggested that both deal with the end of an era in British history, when the distances between the upper classes and the lower classes were being bridged, where the divisions were less distinct, where the lines between social classes were becoming blurred.  I think everyone’s favourite character in the novel was Mrs. Bolton, Clifford’s nurse.  We loved the contradictory nature of this character:  she was at once sharing town gossip with Clifford and acting as his confidante.  She revelled in learning from Clifford, but she was also teaching Connie and Clifford how to act in order to be accepted by the townspeople.  Clifford was her master, while she had control over his broken body and was empowered by this.  What I found most interesting were the similarities between the concerns of Lawrence in 1928 and our concerns today.  Near the beginning of the novel, Connie has a discussion with Tommy Dukes, a friend of both her and Clifford, about whether men and women can be friends.  This reminded me very much of that fabulous romantic comedy, “When Harry Met Sally”, when Harry and Sally are discussing this very topic and Harry concludes that men and women can’t ever really be friends, because sex always gets in the way.  Another example is near the end of the novel, where Mrs. Bolton suggests to Clifford that perhaps Connie and Mellors could go somewhere far away, and he remarks that there is no such thing as “far away” anymore, that people in Tibet are listening to London radio (I’m really paraphrasing here).  Well, these are the same concerns we have today, that the world is shrinking and there’s nowhere to go and be truly away.  In short, the concerns Lawrence expressed in this novel in 1928 are the same as the concerns we have or talk about today.   I think that, while not everyone loved the book, all were glad to have had the opportunity to read and discuss it, and to discover the many different issues the novel explores beyond just sex.

I finished reading Vincent Lam’s Headmaster’s Wager last week.  It started off a bit slow, and was somewhat more descriptive than I would normally like, but then the story took off and it became really interesting.  I know almost nothing about the Vietnam War, so this book offered an interesting perspective for me, as the main character, Percival Chen, was a Chinese businessman who owned an English school near Saigon during the war.  While he wanted to keep his Chinese heritage, he also had to appear to embrace the Vietnamese way of life.  He walked a fine line, trying to offend no one politically as he strived to keep his school not only open, but profitable; he had to please the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese political players as well as the Americans.  Chen’s inability to face the realities of his life and the world around him, and the tragedies that made up his past and present life, make him a flawed, at times infuriating, character, one who inspired anger and frustration in this reader, but also, ultimately, hope for his future and that of his son.  I would definitely recommend it, as it is well-written and thought-provoking.

That’s all for today.

Bye for now!
Julie

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