Reading Note:
An Impossible Situation
23 July 2019

¶ For I don’t know how long — since early last year — on and off, I’ve been reading the novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Now, I’ve only got three left: the first one, the last one (other than the Cazalet novels, which I started out with), and the one that Howard wrote next after the one that I just finished. I just finished Something in Disguise, and it struck me as the best of her books. 

By that, I mean something different from “her best novel” — something closer to “her most successful and characteristic work.” It is funny, but not a romp like Getting It Right. It is more than a little noir, but nowhere near as dark as Falling. (Falling, which plays with the details of something that happened to Howard herself, oddly prefigures the whole genre of recent novels exemplified by Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.) It is neither beautifully sad, like The Long View, nor winsomely bittersweet, like The Sea Change and After Julius. And of course it is not a five-volume saga. If you haven’t discovered Howard for yourself, and are not sure where to begin, this is the novel for anyone who has learned to crave the sheer zest of Muriel Spark.

Before Something in Disguise gets very far, it presents us with two women in impossible situations that, we know, can’t go on. So it’s a great deal of fun to play close attention to what happens until finally, indeed, they don’t. The satisfaction in each case is more than a little naughty (that is, “delicious.”) Meanwhile, there’s a woman who seems to be the surprised beneficiary of a magic wand. In her case, we want to know exactly how much of the loot she’s going to get to keep — which inclined me, I’m afraid, to overlook her feelings somewhat. Mordant counterpoint is provided by a young man who  endearingly fails to distinguish his ass from his elbow whilst undertaking the career of Fortune Hunter. Just to make everything perfect, there are two utterly detestable men. One of them fades away; the other waxes luridly. When I got to the end, I felt what I used to feel at the end of a roller-coaster ride: even though it couldn’t last another minute, I didn’t want it to end. 

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