I came across The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue while browsing through my local library’s online catalog, and then I happened to find a copy at the used bookstore the library runs nearby, so I bought it and dug right in. The story sounded interesting, about two women in Victorian England, good friends reunited after many years, but who are accused of having a romantic affair, the details of which are written in a sealed letter.
However, this description — which I’d read online somewhere — wasn’t actually what the book was about, which was confusing. The letter in question was actually only a minor element later on in the book, and the scandal was actually about one of the women — who is married — having an affair with a colleague of her husband’s, not about her and the other woman. There was a tiny detail about the latter possibility thrown in at the very end, but by then, it just frustrated me.
I really hate when a book is described — by others or the author — as something it ends up not becoming, or when a big emphasis is put on something that is actually not that significant in the book. Meet the expectations you’ve set up, or just get your story straight to begin with!
I’ve only read one other book by W. Somerset Maugham — Cakes and Ale — and I didn’t realize that some of his other works were slightly more contemporary, including The Painted Veil. The story follows a young English couple who get married, despite their not really being a loving couple, and then relocating to part of China, where the husband is going to work for the British government. The wife is the main focus though, and so we see her struggling with her marriage and this new life, and she eventually realizes just how selfish and uncaring she is.
The story was all right, but I had a hard time reading on, because I hated the main character so much. She was really quite a despicable character, very selfish and spoiled, and without any consideration for other people, especially her husband. I’d say it was an all right read, but I don’t really feel any urge to read other works by Maugham.
I was trying to find something vaguely similar to my favorite book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and happened across Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín in my searches. It’s certainly not quite the same, but it sounded interesting, focusing on a young Irish woman emigrating to the United States — to Brooklyn, in particular — in the 1950s.
Unfortunately, the book turned out to be very disappointing. I kept debating whether or not to keep reading, because it felt like nothing was happening, and the characters felt so flat. Eventually, some things do happen, but it didn’t make it much better. It also didn’t feel like it actually took place in the 1950s, and I didn’t feel like I cared for any of the characters.
While looking for additional novels about immigrant experiences, I found The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories by Ellen Litman, which focuses on Russian immigrants and their families in Pittsburgh. The book is made up of several short stories which are intertwined by the recurring characters, including direct immigrants and their children, and the experiences they have in coming to and living in the US.
The short story collection as novel concept was interesting, and I kind of liked getting to switch from one main character to another, or to a group of characters. However, it all felt a bit repetitive after awhile, and I also started to have a hard time telling some of the characters apart, especially because sometimes references would be made to an unnamed person, who might or might not have been someone in a previous story.
The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell follows the elderly Feliks Zhukovski, a Polish leftist who has made France is home, as he looks back on his life as a strong supporter of the Communists. He starts to feel like his life is unraveling, and he ends up really examining how his beliefs were built, and tries to justify them, despite all the Communists actually did in Eastern Europe.
Initially, I liked the story, but after awhile, it felt like there was a shift from showing the story to telling it, starting with a letter from Feliks long-lost mother. It just started feeling less compelling to me, and I started to lose interest. At the very end of the book, it felt like things were tied up too neatly, like a fairy tale ending had to be tacked on. It wasn’t very satisfying though, and felt too mushy, especially contrasted with the character Feliks had seemed to be throughout the rest of the book.