11 December 2009

Book Review: Christmas Holiday

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Christmas Holiday
W. Somerset Maugham

I couldn't resist this opening line:

With a journey before him, Charley Mason’s mother was anxious that he should make a good breakfast, but he was too excited to eat. It was Christmas Eve and he was going to Paris.
Christmas Eve...Paris...breakfast. What could be better? If you pick this up hoping for a cozy holiday read as I did, you could be disappointed. But it is more likely that you will end up liking the book anyway. Charley heads off to Paris to see his old school friend Simon, look at some “pictures” (i.e., paintings at the Louvre) and meet some girls. Once in Paris Charley finds out Simon has turned into a bit of power-hungry, slightly disturbing, proto-dictator with socialist ideals. Pretty promptly after dinner the two head off to a brothel where Simon introduces Charley to Lydia, a Russian prostitute who later that evening accompanies Charley to midnight mass at Saint-Eustache. (How many of you plan to spend your Christmas Eve that way?) From there the narrative turns into the retelling of the circumstances surrounding the imprisonment of Lydia’s husband for murder.

Long (but interesting) story made short, Charley spends the week not falling in love or having sex but getting to know more than he probably wanted to about Lydia’s sad life and seeing a side of life he didn’t know existed. He also finds out what a freak Simon has become. Not surprisingly Charley returns to England a changed man. But even understanding that, I wasn’t quite prepared for the impact of the final phrase of the final sentence of the book:

It was a fact he had done nothing; his father thought he had had a devil of a time and was afraid he had contracted a venereal disease, and he hadn’t even had a woman; only one thing had happened to him, it was rather curious when you come to think of it, and he didn’t just then quite know what to do about it: the bottom had fallen out of his world.
I enjoyed this book, even for what turned out to be an unplanned re-read. I was about 80 pages into it when I realized that I had actually read it before. I checked out my “Read Books” spreadsheet and sure enough, there it was: January 21, 2001. I could forgive myself because this was one of the books I picked up in a secondhand store Thanksgiving weekend. Not having my list with me, how was I to know? However, this story has an ironic twist. Close readers of My Porch will know that I started keeping my “Books Read” list in 1994 when I found myself 30 pages into a novel I had previously read. And the book that prompted me to start the list? Cakes and Ale. By whom you ask? Wait for it… W. Somerset Maugham.

Two lessons:

1) Always travel with your “Books Read” list, and;

2) Maugham is always worth a re-read.

14 comments:

  1. I've never read any Maugham, but I really should. I feel those books are the kind that resonate with you and stay with you after you finish reading them. Even upon an unexpected re-read :-)

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  2. One of my favourite novels is Of Human Bondage and funnily enough I haven't picked up any other books by Maugham. I really should. I've never heard of this one but it sounds like a good holiday read.

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  3. Thanks for this suggestion. I just read Cakes and Ale recently and loved it. I plan to re-read it in ten years time. Christmas Holiday actually sounds really good. I haven't read all of Maugham (yet) - Ashendon is on my night stand these days. Too many times I have tried to read Catalina and have not succeeded thus far.

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  4. I love your Books read list story!

    This sounds fascinating. I don't know if I've ever read any W Somerset Maugham...maybe I should start keeping a list too!

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  5. I really enjoy Maugham (my favorite is The Painted Veil) but have not heard of this one. Will try to remember it next year when I'm selecting holiday books.

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  6. JoAnn's comment reminds me - I have, of course, read The Painted Veil! Clearly I do need that list!

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  7. I had to skip past a bit as soon as I saw the line 'the final sentence' so i didnt read the end just in case anything was given away! I like the title, sounds like its not as christmassey as it suggests.

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  8. This sounds brilliant, and I love, love the cover, what a wonderful find!

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  9. Aarti: For newbies to Maugham I would recommend The Painted Veil, Of Human Bondage, or the Razor's Edge. Now that I think of it, all have been made into films, some more than once.

    LitStew: If you like OHB, I would try for The Razor's Edge.

    Tessa: Odd thing is I have Catalina and haven't been able to get into it yet either. Ashendon was very different than his other books I think.

    Rachel: I think everyone should keep a book list. When I started mine I had a certain amount of angst about the list missing all the books I had read prior to 1994 (I was 25 at the time). But I don't think about what's missing anymore, I just look back at the 15 years of history that I have and am grateful for it. Especially since I read so much more these days. And I keep it simple so it doesn't become a chore. The original list that I still add to is just a journal with the date I finished the book, the title, and the author. I don't try and annotate it in any other way just to keep the whole process simple. Of course then I put it in spreadsheet format...

    JoAnn: I liked the Painted Veil a lot. I always thought it would make a good opera.

    Simon: Not unless your Christmas includes hookers and murder.

    Novel Insight: A lot of Maughams hardback US editions have a very similar look.

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  10. I have a "Read Books" list but not with dates - that is a great addition. Not your typical Christmas story, but sounds great!

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  11. Sliced and Diced: Dates appeal to my anal rententive sensibilities.

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  12. I must get this book. Seems like a suitably bitter and biting read for Christmastime.

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  13. Citizen Reader: You always make me laugh. I have a feeling we would get along like a house on fire.

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  14. I think you are the first person I've come across who's also read Christmas Holiday. I couldn't get enough Maugham in college and enjoyed this one, although I would direct (Maugham) newcomers to The Razor's Edge and Of Human Bondage first.

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